Last Updated: December 7, 2020

The traditional image of a college education has changed significantly in recent years. It used to be that college was a place for young people to spend four years studying, socializing, and transitioning into adulthood. But the demands of the 21st century economy have made a college education imperative for anyone that wants to find a quality job.

People of all ages, races, and backgrounds have flocked to institutions of higher learning. In response to this new paradigm, colleges and universities, from community colleges to Ivy League schools, have begun to expand their educational offerings to attract the college students of tomorrow. Satellite campuses, online degrees, and non-traditional programs have sprung up to attract a record number of new students attending college.

Colleges and universities have begun to market themselves in whole new ways in order to attract this flood of students. They have had to look beyond the traditional college demographic to find ways to appeal to first generation students, older students, and foreign students from around the world.

This requires a careful understanding of the psychology that motivates the decision to go to college. Students have more educational options than ever before. Today’s colleges and universities have to use marketing in a nuanced and comprehensive way to stand out over their competitors.

The Psychology of University and College Marketing

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementDemographicsPsychological Response Elicited
University of Phoenix “Thinking Ahead”Soldiers, mothers, and shift workers are shown going about their daily lives while they pursue a University of Phoenix degree. Encouraging phrases flash at the bottom of the screenMen and women 30-60Convenience – By showing people seamlessly combining their responsibilities in life and in school, viewers get the message that a University of Phoenix education is within reach, regardless of their situation.
University of Michigan “The Michigan Difference”The commercial cuts quickly from images of iconic buildings on campus, to scenes of the football team, and then shots of high-tech, new facilities.Men and women 18-24Tradition – By showing some of the most famous images associated with The University of Michigan, the ad implies that new students can access a rich academic tradition that has served generations of students before them.
Douglas College “Ignite Your Potential”Students from every possible demographic are shown talking about their individuality and their goals for the future.Men and women 20-40College Is For Everyone – The commercial highlights the wide range of students that attend Douglas College while they are preparing themselves for their dream jobs. It suggests that this college is the right choice for any student, no matter who they are or what they want to do.

Why go to college?

The decision to attend a college or university is not one that cannot be made lightly. Completing a college degree requires a significant investment of time, money, and energy. That is why the majority of higher education marketing involves making a nuanced pitch to students about the value and importance of receiving a college degree.

One of the most common strategies that marketers use focuses on the rich tradition of an academic institution. Prospective students are shown the stately looking campus, the iconic school colors, and the legendary athletic teams to remind them of the institution’s storied history. College attendance is framed as an expression of personal identity. The school you choose says something about yourself. Students are encouraged to attend a college in order to access its famous reputation.

Listening to Students

Executive MBA programs (EMBAs) are some of the fastest growing degree programs in the country. The author of a recent study interviewed dozens of current EMBA students to get a sense of their educational expectations and their goals post graduation. The author used this data to suggest ways in which EMBA programs could deliver more relevant marketing messages to prospective students. The author’s research reveled that student’s primary motivations for choosing one EMBA program over another were:

  • Location of the campus
  • Class schedules
  • Opportunities for professional growth
  • Career advancement
  • Opportunity to network professionally
  • The reputation of the academic institution

The author suggests that the nuanced perspectives of students can be used to help EMBA programs refine their service offerings to attract more students. Choices like the cost of the program, its duration, location, and curriculum can all be revised to better accommodate student’s needs.

Source: Geissler, G. L. (n.d.). Using student input to develop a marketing strategy for an executive mba program. Journal of case studies in education.

An opposite appeal is often made to new and non-traditional students. For this demographic, convenience and affordability are often more important than history and status. Ads directed at students who have jobs and families reassure them that getting a degree will fit into a busy schedule. The value of that degree is also emphasized. College is presented as the gateway to a better job and a happier life.

Academics are not always the focus of college marketing though. Many ads make at least a passing reference to the social aspects of going to school. Students are shown celebrating before a big football game, laughing with friends in the cafeteria, and having earnest, late night conversations in their dorm rooms. Growing as an individual and forming lasting friendships are important for most college students. College marketing makes an effort to show students that they will grow both personally and professionally.

The hazards of for-profit education

A 2012 report prepared by The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions** examined the explosive growth of for-profit colleges over the last two decades. The report concludes that despite impressive enrollment numbers, the quality and value of the education offered is often subpar compared to public and private institutions. A common strategy is to use aggressive and misleading marketing tactics to encourage the maximum number of students to enroll. A greater emphasis is often placed on recruitment efforts than on the education students receive.

According to the report “…recruiters at many schools are trained to aggressively pursue and enroll as many students as possible, often with little regard for ethical standards or the best interests of the prospective students.” Recruiters accomplish this by making misleading statements about job placement rates, earnings potential, and transferable credits. While the industry has blamed these tactics on a few “bad apples,” a number of for-profit schools have been ordered to pay significant court settlements for their deceptive marketing tactics.

This illustrates the gulf that exists between effective marketing and honest marketing. It is possible to convince students that a college degree is valuable and necessary without ever making an effort to back up those claims.

**Source: United States Senate, Commitee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (2012). For profit education: The failure to safeguard the federal investment and ensure student success

How well does it work?

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College and university marketing is often broken down into two categories (Measuring marketing return on investment for higher education, Jim Paskill):

  • Tactical
  • Brand building

Tactical advertising includes specific call to action statements (“Come to our open house!”) while brand building tries to create an image around an institution (“Build Your Future Here!”). The challenge for higher education marketers is figuring out which statement makes a bigger impact on prospective students.

According to higher education consultant Jim Paskill, empirical data can be gleaned from both strategies to determine their effectiveness. Tactical advertisements can include tracking codes like specific 1-800 numbers or specialized websites that reveal how often an ad produces a response. Comprehensive market research can reveal how the brand of a college or university is perceived by prospective students. Taken together, data like this can help higher education marketers to focus their message and maximize the return of their marketing investment.

Top ten higher education marketing strategies

In 2010, the marketing firm Lipman Hearne surveyed hundreds of colleges and universities across the country to get a portrait of how and where they spent their marketing budgets. The top 10 most frequently used marketing strategies are printed below. The list reveals that traditional marketing methods like print and in-person advertising are still more common than new digital marketing methods.

  1. Planning/hosting open house events
  2. Print/magazine/newspaper advertising
  3. Admissions print collateral (Recruitment letters)
  4. Alumni or institution magazine
  5. E-communications with alumni
  6. Maintaining a Facebook site
  7. Media Relations
  8. Admissions viewbook
  9. Digital advertising/online banner advertising
  10. Institutional Twitter account

Source: Wondering what works: The changing marketing mix in higher education, Lipman Hearne, 2010.

The importance of psychology and marketing

In order to appeal to the tens of thousands of students that enter college every year, institutions of higher learning have to understand the psychological factors that affect a new student’s choices of a school. To learn more about psychology and marketing, click here.

Related careers

Many university marketing departments are small and limited by today’s standards. Often, they do not have the in-house resources to carry out detailed marketing research. To get a better understanding of the psychology of prospective students, colleges and universities rely on professionals like these:

Market Research Interviewer: Market research interviewers conduct face-to-face interviews with consumers in order to determine their wants and needs from the marketplace. Interviews conducted with prospective students help colleges to deliver more relevant and attention grabbing marketing messages. Learn more about market research interviewers.

Social Media Director: Social media directors coordinate all the marketing efforts that take place on sites like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. In order to maximize their efforts, they have to understand how people, particularly young people, use and relate to social media. Learn more about social media directors.