College Marketing Experts Set Sights on Kids Who Pay
Business + Economy

College Marketing Experts Set Sights on Kids Who Pay

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Purdue University was always a back-up school for Kemsley Corell. But once she was accepted, she was won over by the barrage of mail advertising the school. She received plenty of marketing materials from other schools, but what impressed her about Purdue were the letters from faculty and staff from the Animal Sciences department, the College of Agriculture. She even received one from the dean himself.

Specific phrases in the letters made them seem personal – like the one from Marcos Fernandez, associate dean at the College of Agriculture, who underlined the words, "Congratulations" and "I look forward to meeting and getting to know you." The letters made the Pleasant Grove, Utah applicant , feel "like I was important to Purdue and that I could really fit in there." She started as a freshman at Purdue this fall. 

Corell's story is music to the ears of Teri Lucie Thompson, chief marketing officer for Purdue University. She's one of the many marketing pros hired recently by universities to reach out more aggressively to students. The economic downturn and growing competition among institutions for students is prompting many schools to employ increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques to appeal  to their pool of applicants – including those that can pay full price – and ensure they’ll get the highest caliber of students.

The term "marketing" once was a dirty word at universities and colleges, as many faculty felt the school's stellar reputation should be enough to draw students. But now many schools have hired chief marketing officers, or CMOs, with six-figure salaries. Thompson, who makes a base salary of $265,000 with an annual 14-percent pension contribution, points to Bentley University and Utah State University as just two recent examples. Others schools are also hiring outside marketing firms.

"More than ever, higher education is a buyer's market," said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. He says students are increasingly concerned about the economic returns of their degree and are looking for a college with the best value

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It's difficult to quantify how much colleges are spending on marketing, since at most schools, the expenses are often spread throughout several units of an institution and not well tracked. Publicly traded for-profit education companies spent, on average, $248 million on marketing and recruiting in 2009, and some spent more on marketing and recruitment per student than on instruction, according to a July 2012 report by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) on for-profit colleges.

Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of SimpsonScarborough, a market research firm representing non-profit colleges and universities, says none of her clients spend more than 1 percent of their operating budget on marketing – the estimate that's thrown around by most experts who track this issue. But "spending is more than in the past," she says. The Georgia State University System reportedly spends $7 million on advertising and recruitment, despite a budget shortfall and rising tuition.

Patrick O'Connor, associate dean for college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and a former president of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, says colleges and universities see marketing as a way to increase the quality of their applicant pool and boost rankings – which can not only lead to “more interest among full-paying families,” but also help the college secure lower-interest loans, since many investment analysts tie the security of a college to its ranking. In addition, savvy marketing can prompt alumni and corporations to increase their contributions, and for funding agencies to award more grants, says Thompson.

Students who can pay full price, or out-of-state and international students who pay higher tuition, are in high demand. Grinnell College, for example, a private school in Iowa that received a $1.5 billion endowment last year – the fifth largest of any liberal arts college in the country – is considering changing its admission process from “need-blind” to “need aware,” and having a student’s finances factor into the admission decision in order to enroll more high-paying students. Wesleyan University made a similar decision this summer.

“The stronger the brand, the more ability the institution has to charge more,” says Rob Moore, president of Lipman Hearne, a marketing communications firm that services non-profits (60 percent of its clients are in higher education). For private institutions, which typically offer large tuition discounts, prestige “gives them the ability to dial back on discounting and still enroll the class they want and need.” Public universities are also trying to appeal to more high-paying students. “Higher education leaders argue that given fading state support, they have little choice but to turn to these revenue streams,” says Pals.

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But increased marketing doesn't always work. As a mother of twins who are high school seniors, Andrea Sharb of Cleveland, Ohio finds "a small tree's worth of paper" in her mailbox each day from colleges. Her sons recently received a total of at least 100 pieces of mail from colleges in one week alone. Since schools also send marketing materials to her children based on their nicknames, they sometimes get four to five pieces of the same mailing. And this doesn't include the deluge of e-mails sent.

"These mailings have done nothing to influence my kids' decisions, and 99 percent of them go in the recycle bin within 30 minutes of crossing our threshold," said Sharb. According to Rob Moore, this past fall a typical high-achieving student received literally 75 pounds’ worth of direct mail materials from colleges.

Some faculty members oppose costly branding efforts that they say take money away from their schools’ valuable educational programs. Riall Nolan, a professor of Anthropology at Purdue, points to that school's campaign, called "Makers All." It ended up costing nearly $600,000 (not including Thompson’s salary) to develop the slogan, as well as banners and advertising."A lot of alumni thought it was tacky" and a waste of time, he said.

Despite these critiques, marketing efforts continue to grow. When the American Marketing Association held its Higher Education Conference last year, it attracted 1,000 people, the highest attendance of any conference that AMA runs, says Thompson.

Schools are engaging in everything from sending out magazines to reaching out through e-mails, Facebook, banner ads and serving up information through Pandora's ad service. In the case of Purdue, Thompson’s efforts toward search engine optimization and the use of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to reach out to potential students have paid off. Thompson believes there’s been a rise in awareness of Purdue, and the school has seen an uptick in the quality of applicants within the state, the Midwest and in other states.

Schools are also tapping their career development offices to communicate the value of the degree after a student graduates. Lisa Severy, director of career services and assistant vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder, speaks along with admissions officers at out-of-town events to emphasize the school's job placement and graduate school record. "Parents want to know, ‘If I'm making this big investment, will it pay off?’" she said. She discusses the number of students who have secured jobs, the ways in which graduates have used their skills in the workforce, and the services the schools provide to help prepare them for the competitive job market.
Harvard Business School, which accepted only 13 percent of 8,963 applicants for this academic year, sees the need to market its institution. "We weren't telling our story aggressively enough," which allowed competing schools to characterize the school in a way that benefitted them, says Brian Kenny, the school's first CMO. Kenny, who was previously Northeastern University's first CMO as well, says even a school as prestigious as Harvard Business School could suffer brand erosion over time, and successful marketing will help ensure it continues to attract top students worldwide. "Universities are competing for mindshare just the way a product or service has to compete for mindshare," he said.  

O'Connor says the downside for colleges is that with so much paper, e-mail and texts, "students feel a sense of being overwhelmed." But he says the upside benefits the students, allowing them to become aware of many more colleges that they might not have considered – and that end up being the right fit. That was certainly the case for Kemsley Corell. Even though she's over 1,000 miles from  home, she's "thrilled" with Purdue. "I am so glad I chose this university because I feel like I belong," she said.