Fiscal Reality Forces Higher Ed Industry to Market Itself

Faced with revenue problems stemming from cuts in state and federal government aid and sluggish student growth, the best and the brightest representing the higher education industry in the US gathered at the American Marketing Association Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education to ponder the industry's future. In addition to the fiscal issues facing American colleges and universities, the entire academic landscape is also undergoing a seismic shift thanks to the growing popularity of technology and online education — so how should colleges and universities respond?

These kinds of fundamental shifts are thoroughly shaking up a field that has grown to define the word "conservative." But as many schools are facing increased debt burdens from substantial capital investments in the 90s and shrinking revenues, they are not only being forced to consider making drastic changes in how they are operating, but also facing a tight deadline by which they need to implement the solutions.

Rapid technological change is sweeping the higher education landscape. College Web sites, normally slow to change, are straining to keep pace with the move to mobile and a student population that is increasingly doing college research online. This year, one in four prospective students did all higher education research online, and one in six education search queries came from smart phones — up from one in 83 in 2009, says Mike Mascott, head of education industry at Google. During a session at the conference, Mascott gave attendees a sneak peek at Google's upcoming quarterly report on trends in higher education.

Many of those attending the symposium still struggle with the fact that, like any product competing for the limited pool of available consumer money, higher education has now become an industry in need of marketing itself. It used to be that the value of a college degree was so self-evident that there was no need to give it the hard sell — but not any longer.

A typical university frequently operates like several co-existing fiefdoms, but to market itself effectively, each school needs to harness all the data it collects, which means forcing departments that have traditionally operated independently to pool both their data and their resources.

Marketers also need to close the loop, when possible, using customer relationship management, analytics and other IT tools and best practices in integrated, end-to-end, data-driven marketing efforts that help ensure that those efforts are getting results. That's not happening at all schools. At some, marketing efforts are fragmented, with data from marketing, institutional advancement and admissions departments residing in different functional silos. Data sharing faces cultural resistance. Even when everyone is on the same page, however, organizations face budgetary and technical hurdles in integrating that data.

There was also a lot of talk about effectively using social media to take their message to the consumers, yet those making presentations at the symposium admitted that, at the moment, they lacked the infrastructure to determine how effective their marketing pitches have been. Like many similar problems, this is one that the higher ed industry will need to solve if it wants to become an effective seller of its services.

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