Higher Education Marketing

Marketing Higher Ed to Parents

Summary: In the world of higher education marketing, parents are an under-addressed group whom we should not ignore. Parents are involved in the decision process when a student chooses your school, and sometimes they hold the purse strings. In addition to your student-targeted marketing, what is your college doing to reach out to parents?

Who is the biggest influence in a child’s life? Obviously, it’s mom and dad, even though other influences are present as well. In marketing higher education, we focus so much of our efforts on reaching out to prospective students with our messaging. But what about talking to their parents? Let’s examine this angle of higher ed marketing.

We’ll dig into what the parents of your next student care about the most. Then we can see how to tailor our marketing message and value proposition to align with those parents’ expectations and the best communication practices.


What Do Parents of College-Ready Students Care About?

One of the first concerns of parents is, no surprise, safety. Anybody who has had children can identify: their safety and well-being are your first thought every day. So what safety concerns are there to address on the campus square today?


We are just beginning to glimpse the COVID-19 pandemic in the global rear-view mirror, and nobody is sorry to see it go. However, we’re still not out of the proverbial woods yet: We still don’t have everybody vaccinated, parts of the world are still suffering their pandemic peak, and there are variants of the Coronavirus which threaten to mutate into becoming the next pandemic.

These might not be significant concerns in some places. Still, the point is that every parent fears for their children’s safety, especially since most of us have been impacted in some way by COVID-19, be it the loss of family members and loved ones or even co-workers and distant acquaintances.

Bottom line: The same safety measures that your school advertised at the dawn of the pandemic should still be at least partially in place. Communicate that to parents, highlighting your campus sanitation precautions, practices in limiting large crowds and gatherings, remote learning options, and other safety measures. Schools may not be able to require “vaccine passports,” as the idea was bandied about, but can still encourage vaccination through their messaging. Put it upfront where the parents can see it too.

Beyond COVID-19, share information on your campus healthcare facilities, emergency medical response teams, and nearby hospitals. Re-assure parents that if anything were to happen, your students would be well cared for.

Mental and Emotional Health

COVID-19 had a secondary impact on young people, which worsened their collective mental health. However, even without a pandemic, the student mental health landscape has more of a spotlight than in previous generations. Students today are far more aware of—and open about—mental health issues, which have dropped the stigma that plagued the issue in previous generations. There is also the diversity factor in mental and emotional well-being. We just got through June, LGBTQ+ Pride month, and amid that, we passed Juneteenth as a federal holiday to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans.

So what are we talking about here? Your student body today is likely to be extremely vocal about its diversity and individuality. On every front, from diverse cultural backgrounds to matters of gender identity and orientation, you will be faced with the proverbial cast of unique snowflakes, all of whom will demand inclusion and respect. Students who experience discrimination or a toxic culture will feel the impact on their mental health there as well.

Parents of this generation are aware of the social issue we have now. Before, if you had a non-heterosexual child, many parents encouraged them to hide it and try to blend in. Now the shoe is on the other foot: Parents today watch for any sign of bigotry against their offspring and will quickly leap to their defense. The onus is on the campus to accommodate everyone and safeguard an inclusive and accepting atmosphere in their daily business.

Bottom line: Be the “caring” school! Highlight your diversity and your civil rights activism like never before. Alongside this, tout your school resources in mental health services, student counseling, and promoting a thriving, inclusive atmosphere of mental and emotional well-being. Your marketing materials should re-assure parents that their children have somewhere to turn for help and support.

And now for other, more standard, concerns which parents of college-age students express:

Academic Value

Not much has changed in this regard. Parents have always wanted their children to have an education that prepares them for a stable and fruitful career. In previous generations, going to college was seen more as an automatic gateway to upper-class life, without much focus on the value of a particular degree. Today, the view has shifted to the brass tacks of what a degree means, what careers are opened by said degree, and how valuable it will be in coming decades.

Bottom line: To parents, you should emphasize the academic value that your school provides. Feature alumni endorsements, achievements of past students, graduation rate, individual support for studies, and your expansive libraries and study halls. Feature your school-to-career pipeline. Do you have partnerships with corporations that hire right out of your campus? Career fairs? Career counseling and support? Parents don’t mind so much paying for college as long as it offers value with a capital “V.”

Price Tag

We’ve certainly all heard about the high cost of higher education, haven’t we? Parents, who will likely be footing the bill for their kids’ education, are always going to experience some sticker shock. But recent events have made the cost of higher ed become a sharper concern than before. We do have the economic fallout from COVID-19 to consider; many parents may have been laid-off, had a career setback, or even saw a major business venture go bust due to the bad timing.

Bottom line: You want to emphasize your school’s financial support. Highlight the opportunities in scholarships, student loan structures, or available grants. This is basically the same way you would market to any student with financial concerns, but in addition, you can do something extra for the parents. That is, clearly document, even itemize, the costs and where they come from. Maybe there’s an opportunity to supplement the textbook bill with an open books program? Perhaps students can cut the costs of on-campus housing? Whatever your financial situation, making the expenses clear and differentiating between the necessary expenses and the frills will go a long way.

Now that we have some messages to share with parents, let’s find out more about this demographic…


Who Are the Parents of College-Age Students?

This is a deep and interesting question because you have a challenging split demographic! Today’s students are overwhelmingly Generation Z. Their parents are a split between mostly Generation X (born 1965-1979, currently age 40-54) and early Millennials (born 1980-1994, currently age 25-39). These two generations currently comprise the majority of the workforce.

We could fill a book about these two generations, which each have fascinating positions in history which shaped their world views. In fact, Generation X and Millennials may prove to be the sharpest generational divide ever, hence the challenge to marketing to both as a group. We should focus more on Gen-Xers because their children are without question higher-ed range, where the younger half of Millennial parents are still years away from thinking about college.

Rather than focus on the differences, let’s see what values unite both generations as a group:

  • They are economically wary: Gen-X saw the Reaganomics ’80s and Dot-Com crash; Millennials endured the 2007 Subprime Mortgage Recession and the ongoing COVID economic impact. Both generations understand that there is no such thing as a permanent position, and they value transferable skills and career flexibility.
  • They are tech-savvy: Generation X is more likely to own a laptop, and Millennials are more likely to use a phone, but otherwise, both generations were weaned on a screen of some kind. Generation X is more crafty with tech and more comfortable with text; Millennials expect far more out of technology and would rather watch a video. Both of them head for your website first, while Generation Z is scanning your social media feeds.
  • Both are skeptics: Generation X tends to question everything because they were born in the wake of civil unrest and were raised self-sufficient. Millennials mistrust authority because they were born into “cancel culture” and media saturation, so they expect every god to have feet of clay. You have something to prove to both of them. Be grateful if you only have to prove it once.
  • Both prize diversity and individuality: Generation X is mostly defined by being so individual that they never united as a generation because that was for squares. Millennials came along to embrace diversity labels with a passion, down to redefining gender pronouns. All of them demand that you accommodate every race, gender, orientation, religion, creed, belief system, and diet.

Taking the above proclivities into account, along with the things parents care about in the previous section, we can see a better structure to shape our marketing message:

  • Highlight academic value and flexibility: Tout your easy credit transfers, your wide-open course catalog, and your programs that offer a buffet approach to curriculum. You want parents to know that students at your campus will be “ready for anything.”
  • Use technology to the fullest extent: With mobile-friendly websites and apps, interactive ads, conversational chatbots, and as many tech-assisted services as possible. Goodness knows, technology has played an important role for three generations now, it’s not likely to stop being relevant.
  • “Show me, don’t tell me.” Back up every claim with data, offer campus tours, have open house events with faculty on hand for Q&A. You are under the magnifying glass.
  • Showcase your inclusive atmosphere: It’s all about those diverse people rubbing elbows as cozy, respected equals. Schools have been at the forefront of progressive cultural movements throughout history. Continue to show how you respect and value your student body and welcome all peoples.

As we said, there’s much more to say about the generations, but we marketing people never shut up about demographics. Let’s just cap it and move on, with the caveat that, of course, there are exceptions to every rule, including generational ones.


Marketing to College Students’ Parents

The digital marketing you use to reach parents of students looks similar to the same channels you use to reach students, but with subtle differences.

You want to advertise to parents through the channels they use. Most of this will be on your own website or the parts of your website they will discover through Google. Email marketing is a perennial staple to reach Gen-X especially. Social media channels will likely be limited to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. The rest of the social media sphere is more Generation Z territory.

However, don’t be afraid to spring more advanced tech on the parents. Let them encounter an automated assistant or host an interactive video conference. They will appreciate that your school is cutting-edge and embracing the future.

In marketing to parents, be consistent and repeat your message, letting brand awareness sink in. Those with kids that aren’t quite college-age will spend time researching and reading news articles and blogs as they prepare to send their kids to school, so keep them up to date. A positive news story about your school will score high marks with them. Your school’s blogs or social media channels should carry events like your policy changes or improved safety measures. It’s not so much about the details, as the general feeling that you’re on the ball, hands-on, somebody is in charge.

Parents, more than the students, will be swayed by events. Open houses, campus tours, Q&A sessions, meet and greet events, any event at all. They will appreciate your openness and will take the opportunity to analyze and compare one school to another. However, you win points just for being engaging and approachable and available to answer their questions.

Bottom line: Marketing to parents is an entirely different ball game compared to marketing to students. You use some of the same message and methods but augmented for the older audience with a more mature outlook. If you reach out to both parents and their children, chances are one will persuade the other that your campus is the place to be!


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