Marketers in higher education, we feel for you.
Many industries are experiencing turbulence, thanks to economic upheaval and the lingering impacts of COVID-19, but higher education is reeling from a host of other issues as well. There’s the shift in demand toward digital offerings and increased competition from online bootcamps and certification programs. There’s a Supreme Court that many expect will end affirmative action. And there are the rising tuition costs and record levels of student debt, which have led many to question if getting a college degree is really worth it. In fact, according to one survey, 51% of Americans feel that a college education is “a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities.”
These factors aside, perhaps the biggest challenge facing higher ed right now is the looming enrollment cliff. While US college enrollment has been on the decline since 2010, a drop-off in birth rates during the Great Recession of 2008 is set to dramatically shrink the college-age population starting in 2025.
If reading this made your blood pressure spike, stick with us! Our goal today is not only to lay out exactly what the enrollment cliff is and what it means for higher ed, but also to provide strategies marketers can use to address the challenges it poses. Want to set yourself up for success in the coming years? You’ve come to the right place.
Before we dive into strategies, let’s address what the college enrollment cliff is and why it’s happening.
The enrollment cliff is the result of a significant US population shift that happened about 15 years ago. From 2007 to 2009, people had fewer children, largely due to stress and uncertainty stemming from the Great Recession. The birth rate has continued to see a long-term decline ever since, reaching a record low in 2020 (gee, we wonder why...)
Some quick mental math will tell you that kids born during the Great Recession are just now reaching the age when they’ll start to consider and apply to colleges. The problem? That high school-aged population is significantly smaller than it has been historically—with the number of 18-year-olds expected to decrease by 15% from 2025 through 2029—hence the looming drop-off, or “cliff,” which experts predict will take hold in 2025.
Couple this population shift with declining college enrollment in general, and it’s clear that higher education institutions must brace themselves for a drop-off with no clear end in sight.
Now, it’s worth noting that the enrollment cliff will not impact all higher education institutions equally. Elite colleges like Harvard and Yale will be just fine, and West Coast states, Texas, and some Mountain States are projected to see enrollment numbers rise due to migration patterns in those areas. However, colleges in the Northeast and Midwest may see a more than 15% drop in enrollment through 2029.
The enrollment cliff, combined with the other factors impacting higher education that we touched on in the beginning, is set to transform this space in ways that are out of marketers’ control. However, there are some strategies higher ed marketers can leverage to prepare.
If there’s one good thing to come out of the enrollment cliff dilemma, it’s the growing importance of marketers and marketing teams in higher education. Yes, we’re talking about Y-O-U! As competition grows ever fiercer, leadership will look to marketers to attract prospective students by developing impactful messaging and strategically delivering that messaging to target audiences.
Marketers should use the enrollment cliff as an opportunity to get cabinet-level support for their teams and budgets. Lead with the value your team will provide through these turbulent times, and educate your leadership about the support, investments, and technologies you’ll need to ensure your institution’s story gets in front of the right audience, at the right time.
As for what you should you do once you have that support, here are some key strategies and tips to help you meaningfully connect with prospective students, even as that pool declines:
By now, most higher ed marketers appreciate that diversity and inclusion are critical in college marketing. Forces like racism, ableism, and homophobia make it so people of non-majority identities face extra challenges accessing and thriving in higher education, and marketers share the responsibility of combatting those challenges. But packing marketing materials with inauthentic representations of diversity is also harmful, so this is an area where marketers must be mindful, collaborative, and open to learning.
Yes, it’s important for your marketing materials to reflect a country that is growing increasingly racially diverse. But it’s also critical to think about the experiences students will actually have as you’re designing your marketing campaigns. For example, it’s a smart choice to have ads that run in Spanish to increase accessibility for multilingual Hispanic and Latinx students. However, you should also ensure that your services team employs people who can speak Spanish when people call to follow up on those ads.
For true authentic inclusivity, cross-team collaboration is critical. Get connected with your college’s diversity and inclusion team to ensure your media reflects the experiences that students with diverse identities can expect on campus. Missteps here are highly impactful, as they not only misrepresent the service you’re selling, but also present a threat to brand safety.
In this era of increased competition, higher education institutions must reinvest in upper funnel storytelling—both to educate their audiences about the value of a college degree, and to differentiate their brands.
This first focus is designed to address that skepticism toward higher ed we’ve mentioned a few times now. Showcase statistics like your graduates’ rate of employment, plug your career services, and share stories about successful alumni. Parents in particular will appreciate seeing some evidence when it comes to the value of a degree.
Prospective students, on the other hand, will likely want to hear about campus life. What programs, extracurriculars, experiences, or values set your college or university apart? Finding compelling ways to tell these stories will ensure your institution is top-of-mind when students start their applications.
How can you tell these stories in ways that will capture the attention of this generation of prospective students? While higher ed has traditionally used glossy, highly curated advertising, Gen Z prefers content characterized by messy realness. Authenticity is king with this generation—they fueled the rise of BeReal, after all! The key for colleges and universities is to embrace imperfection in their creative. Need some inspiration? Just open up TikTok, where messy realness dominates, and on which iPhone users between the ages of 18 and 25 spend an average of 10.5 hours per week.
Speaking of social media, TikTok and Snapchat are the two most popular social platforms among Zoomers and serve as an excellent way to reach that generation. And when approaching upper-funnel marketing with all target audiences in mind, audio and CTV present enormous opportunities to share compelling stories with highly engaged viewers and listeners—not to mention additional opportunities for segmentation and targeting. Which brings us to our next point…
To market effectively in this competitive environment, marketers will need to get hyper-focused in their advertising. They’ll need to deeply understand key audience segments, develop messaging based on those audiences’ needs, and deliver that messaging in targeted ways.
Here are a few ways to achieve this precision:
Higher ed marketers should invest time and energy in understanding both prospective audiences and any people who have already shown interest.
Certain growth segments will be generally relevant to higher education institutions, including:
Additionally, having a system for collecting and making the most of first-party data is a must—for instance, marketers can use a DMP solution to gather information about users who have visited their website, then tap into technologies that offer look-a-like modeling to expand that data’s reach.
Once you’ve clarified your target audiences, it’s time to get creative about reaching them. For example, potential graduates and adult learners offer some unique options for targeting. Marketers can gather a list of the companies in their institution's area that provide tuition reimbursement, then geofence those buildings and serve ads that are tailored to the needs and desires of workers who may be interested in continuing education.
Yield campaigns work to convert applicants and accepted applicants into students. While applicants used to be the bottom of the funnel for marketers, prospective students are now applying to a lot more colleges—in fact, one report found that the number of applications submitted to a survey of 853 colleges increased by 21.3% between 2019-2020 and 2021-2022.
An effective yield strategy might leverage a customer relationship management (CRM) system to reach and maintain excitement among applicants who have been accepted to your college or university. Marketers can ensure optimal user experience by updating their CRM lists weekly, adding new accepted students and removing those who have committed.
While higher education is one of the industries that has been slower to adopt them, marketing tools and technologies have come a long way in recent years. Innovations such as automation and AI now allow marketers to make their campaigns as hyper-focused, segmented, and personalized as possible.
For example, the automation provided by programmatic advertising technology allows marketers to serve the right people the right message at the right time, at scale. Even more, tapping into advertising automation can empower a whole new level of marketing personalization. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies can automate aspects of campaign personalization and optimization. Dynamic creative optimization (DCO) can automatically create thousands of ads to enhance personalization and segmentation. And features like workflow automation, automated reporting, and automated billing work to streamline the entire campaign process and save marketers time.
The enrollment cliff and the other challenges facing higher education right now might seem insurmountable. But challenges and change bring unique opportunities for success, a constant that holds true for higher education marketers in this moment.
The first bright spot is how the competitive landscape will increase the importance and value of marketing. Institutional leadership will be eager to invest in your teams and understand your perspectives on how to boost enrollment amidst the turbulence. The second is that new tools and technologies allow marketers to reach their audiences more effectively and efficiently, while providing prospective students with a more personalized customer journey.
This is an ideal moment for marketers to put these two advantages together by getting cabinet-level support for the tools and technologies that will not only make their jobs easier and more enjoyable, but dramatically more effective as well.
Want to learn more about how automation can transform the marketing campaign process from start to finish? Check out our guide to explore all the ways automation can transform your institution’s marketing team.