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Colleges Spending Record Amounts to Woo Students

Even as enrollment has declined in higher education, colleges and universities are spending record amounts to persuade students to apply, according to an article recently published in The Hechinger Report. Among the outlays in marketing and advertising mentioned: a $250,000 partner designation for New Jersey's Kean University with the New York Jets and a $5 million marketing and branding campaign that required hiring five new marketing employees at Catholic University of America.

But those are relatively tiny outlays when compared to the budgets of major online institutions and private nonprofits, reporter Jon Marcus pointed out in the article. Southern New Hampshire invested $144 million and Western Governors University spent $127 million in various promotional activities in 2019. And over the course of a single year, either 2018 or 2019, Johns Hopkins spent $29.6 million, New York University $28.5 million, the University of Pennsylvania $25.7 million and Northwestern $25.6 million.

In total, higher ed spent a collective $2 billion in 2018 and $2.2 billion in 2019, according to figures provided to Marcus by brand consulting company Kantar. During the first quarter of 2021, the estimated investment reached $870 million.

The possible reasons offered for the major outlays were these:

  • Attempts by schools to recapture lost enrollment due to the ongoing slide that has beset the segment since 2015 and that reached a peak decline of 3.5 percent for spring 2021 — the "steepest enrollment drop in a decade," according to the National Student Clearinghouse;
  • Response to increased competition from online providers and other alternatives to degree programs;
  • Response to the "increasing public skepticism about the need to go to college in the first place," as the article stated; and
  • As a replacement for shrinking numbers of student candidate contact details, previously made available to schools through SAT and ACT testing.

Marcus noted that alongside jumps in marketing expenditure, schools are hiring marketing chiefs in record numbers too. As a signal, the American Marketing Association's annual higher education symposium has grown from 300 participants 10 years ago to almost 1,500 in 2019. Many have come from the private sector, including Dan Dillon, who formerly worked at Coca Cola and Outback Steakhouse and now runs marketing at Arizona State University; and R. Ethan Braden, previously at Eli Lilly and now at Purdue.

While the average salary for lead marketers ranges from $157,000 to $175,000, these individuals can earn up to $375,000, according to a report on the "state of higher ed marketing," published in 2019 by SimpsonScarborough.

One problem with those who are leading marketing efforts on campus is that they're predominantly male (61 percent) and white (93 percent). Such demographics call into question institutions' commitment to diversity and equity, the story suggested. One concern raised: that much of the marketing is targeting wealthier students, better positioned to pay a higher share of tuition.

Another barrier raised by Marcus: that public schools, and particularly community colleges, are in no position to compete. As Debra McGaughey, the president of the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations, which represents "communicators" in community and technical colleges, asserted, "If you look at it in terms of dollars, we are grossly outspent."

The article is openly available on The Hechinger Report website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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