Of all the life decisions, choosing a school for continuing education is one that people tend to ruminate upon for a long time. It’s one of those few decision points, like marrying, starting a family, or moving to a new state, that tends to set the narrative for the rest of your life. As a higher education institution, your mission should be to use marketing to guide students along the path to selecting your school and answering all of the questions and concerns they might have along the path to that decision.
What Are the Top Criteria Important to Students?
This isn’t always such an easy question to answer. The factors that matter most to students choosing the path of their finished education is reflected in environmental factors, their cultural roots, their career motivations, and their finances, among many influences.
A student in the 1960s, for instance, might not have had as weighty a financial consideration, but likely would have had a corporation-directed career goal, e.g. work for Dow Chemical or Procter & Gamble. Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate (1967) was advised by a family friend to set his career goals for “plastics.” Would a 21st-century student have such a rigid fixation on a single industry or would they set their sights on other goals?
According to LinkedIn surveys, there’s a growing trend where employees are seeking more flexible work arrangements, in terms of scheduling and work-life balance. So maybe a student might be more swayed towards work more easily done remotely (even before the global pandemic). This is just one example of how career goals for students can change over time and why you need to assess if your marketing strategy is addressing what they want.
Now, let’s review the criteria in order of importance to students.
Of course, most students do aim their academic goals towards their expectations of a career. Their chief concerns:
- Ability to secure employment post-graduation
- Internship availability
- Salary potential
The graph above shows a survey of students, with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates most confident about their future job potential. That makes sense, given the current trends. STEM students likely research the field and find that the career prospects for STEM majors are stable and high-paying. This is just one example of students “doing their homework” before they set their academic course.
No matter the subject and major, students want to know that their chosen path leads to the best possible career outcomes.
Marketing Message For Job Prospects:
The core message of this marketing niche should be “show me.” Develop marketing campaigns geared to demonstrating that graduates from your school are satisfied and successful in later life. You can show this information on an individual basis and a statistical basis.
For individual stories, you’ll obviously need to focus on your past students. Promotional mediums that work great here include:
- Videos: Interview your past alumni and have them talk about their careers.
- Articles: Share the news when one of your former students are featured in the media for a career landmark.
- Blog posts: Invite alumni to share their success stories in your university publications.
- Open house: When your campus has an event, have former students come back to meet and greet students and share their experiences.
What if you’re a newer college, trying to promote a new academic program, or are otherwise lacking in viable alumni that fit the “Fortune 500” model of success? You can still make a case through published research and statistics.
Of course, you can make this case with any advanced degree over a bachelor’s or high school diploma. But it should be easy to find statistics to show positive postgraduate job placement for just about every major career path. You can look for positives in aspects such as:
- Time from graduation to hire: Nobody likes a long job search
- Rate of promotion in a field: Talent should pay off
- Average salary: Money talks
- Stability: For some people, success means never getting laid off no matter how bad the on-going recession
- Number of openings: When you’re in demand, you never have to worry
Whatever your course and the end career goals of that course, you should be able to find positive statistics to show that the career path is worthwhile by one measure or another. Tout those statistics in all of your marketing materials and across channels.
However, there’s still more to college than just getting a “job coupon”:
A close second concern for students is receiving not just any education, but a high-quality education. Some students are more concerned about whether they’ll be able to muddle through to graduation and seek out colleges with the most support. Some students may be passionate about their field and want to learn in the most academically stimulating environment. Some students simply weigh academic quality in line with potential job prospects, reasoning that the better the program, the better the career prospects.
Some of the aspects students look for in a school’s academic quality might include:
- Quality of instructors and materials
- Support from tutors, mentors, community
- Flexibility of course schedules
- High graduation rate
- Staff involvement and commitment
Marketing Message For Academic Quality:
The core message of this marketing niche should be “dazzle me.” You want to highlight faculty achievements, feature testimonials from students and teachers alike, and demonstrate your involved support network. Make sure the world knows when your faculty receives an award. if they publish a paper or speak at a conference, share it! Did an academic club and faculty team launch a new community initiative or resource? Share it on social! It can be as simple as live streaming lectures or presentations from renowned academic guests.
You want to see it from prospective students’ point of view: how accomplished and respected are the faculty? Are they engaged and active participants in the community? Will I have access to leaders in my field of study? Whatever your strengths, trumpet them as loud as possible.
Nearly any medium and channel can be used to promote this message:
- Social media: show off your lectures, student community, classroom projects.
- Video: Get your most inspiring professor to deliver a stimulating lecture and put it on YouTube.
- Tours and open houses: Whether in-person or in virtual tours, show and tell your school’s facility and staff.
- Website: As much as possible, your school website should be loaded with content showing off what makes your program unique and exemplary.
The next student criterion is closely related to this one:
A school’s reputation is naturally affected by all of the above factors. Academic quality, alumni success, retention rates, faculty support—all of this feeds into school rankings. The reputation of universities is expressed in metrics such as:
- US News university rankings
- News stories about the school
- Word-of-mouth recommendations among students
- Fame of professors and other faculty
- Area of college emphasis
You should of course always be vigilant in improving your school’s image and managing its reputation. Be quick to jump on a crisis and address it, should one come up. Tout your school’s achievements wherever possible. Look to your feedback and student surveys for complaints students have and ways to shore up your weak points.
Marketing Message For School Reputation:
The core message of this marketing niche should be “stay positive.” There are some aspects of a college’s reputation that resist change. Older colleges will always be seen as more established. Liberal arts colleges have one sort of reputation while research universities have another sort. Private and public colleges have built-in respective expectations that people tend to confirm. These are just some examples.
However, just as people are all individuals with unique qualities, schools all have their strengths. Play to your strengths in your marketing message. Perhaps look back over your statistics and records to find something to accentuate. Do you graduate more of a certain major than any other school in your state? Does your campus celebrate diversity? Do student testimonials reflect that your professors are the most inspiring? Does your law school have the highest bar passage rate?
One extra hot spot to focus on here: the COVID-19 pandemic and the logistical fallout from it left schools scrambling to adapt. This gives you two more areas to accentuate: Your school’s measures to keep students safe and healthy, and your programs’ flexibility in remote learning. Indeed, some schools had an opportunity to raise their stats a notch by being the first to adapt and innovate around the pandemic.
Whatever you can find to tout as a positive, let that be a cornerstone of your reputation. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Now on to another area that isn’t so straightforward to market…
This is the ultimate factor you can’t change unless you can physically pick the campus up and move it somewhere. Your location can matter in several ways to students. For students who seek the closest school in proximity to their home or their intended home, pure mileage is the main criterion. If students are willing to relocate, then the location matters in ways like:
- Urban or rural: Urban is closer to important resources, rural means cheaper living and some quiet study time
- Cost of living: A university isn’t much good if you can’t afford to live anywhere near the place
- Local activities: Off-campus life should provide some recreation
- Local culture: We all need to feel like we can fit into a place
- Proximity to points of interest: Sometimes the best asset a campus can have is a nearby airport
Keep in mind that school location is lower on the list of concerns. A student who is determined to get the best degree possible for the dollar doesn’t care if your school is on the moon. But location plays some consideration after the other criterion are crossed off the list.
Marketing Message For School Location:
The core message of this marketing niche should be “you are here.” No matter where your facility is, you should first help students find it, understand its proximity, and what it costs to live there. After that, you can share information that highlights your regional features.
Cost of living is often a big concern for the stereotypical broke college student. Give them as much practical information as possible.
- Dormitory and live-in facilities: If you provide these
- Local rents: The average studio apartment or most economical living
- Price indicators: Gas prices, cost of a cup of coffee, tax rates
- Median local income: Both an economic indicator and a social class indicator
The rest of your marketing message should focus on regional promotion. This is the part where you take a lesson from your local tourism bureau. So, what is it about your location that makes it attractive to students? You can always find something positive to say here. Recreational activities should revolve around the minimal student budget:
- Beaches: Fun in the sun, admission-free
- Parks and natural features: Hiking, biking, and backpacking, also free
- Urban features: Museums, amusements, nightclubs, cafes, theaters, and stadiums
- Shopping and dining: For those with the money to spend, a place to spend it
- Industry: Local corporate headquarters and businesses make it easier to intern and network
- Local culture: At the least, most universities have a nearby bohemian shopping district with some art studios and antique shops. Share what makes your community unique.
To influence your prospective students’ decisions, you should include all this information in your website, brochures, and other promotional media. Make liberal use of photos and a bit of “travel writing.” List your proximity to every conceivable point of interest, possibly including local highway or bike trail travel routes.
Not only will this persuade students that they can build an exciting life at your campus, but it’ll also help you with local searches. Creating content, like web pages and blog articles, about your region will help you rank for location-based search queries like “colleges near national parks.”
This is the most self-explanatory factor. The criterion that matters here is just your tuition fees, meal plans, on-campus housing costs, costs of textbooks and other charges, and the availability of financial aid.
Marketing Message For Cost:
The core message of this marketing niche should be “accessibility.” Don’t try to hide your costs. Students need this information to make their decision. Make it easy to find in brochures and on your website. Prospective students should be able to clearly understand the full cost (no “hidden fees”) and the total budget needed. Next, make your financial aid information just as easily accessible and include contact points for your student funding resources. If you offer scholarships or grants, make sure students can find them.
You can also bring up some factors from the previous section. If your local cost of living is rock bottom or you offer amazing campus facilities, bring this up in the financial section too. Any perk you can offer—free parking, student pass transportation, on-campus laundry—is worth pitching in here, because every penny saved decreases the overall financial impact of attending.
Just as your location matters for the full student experience, your school’s quality of student life is a selling point as well. Students care about campus culture in many ways:
- Social opportunities: Nobody wants to be the lone wolf
- Diversity: Everybody wants to fit in, even if it’s a cultural melting pot
- University Resources: Anything from a theater to sports to a library
- Recreation: You have to have fun sometime
Campus culture is an underrated selling point. We go to school for the education and opportunities, but decades later, we remember the fun times and friends we enjoyed along the way.
Marketing Message For Campus Culture:
The core message of this marketing niche should be “embrace me.” Students want to feel good to be at your campus and to feel like part of a community. Throughout your marketing channels, you can use visual and video media to convey your message, accentuating your day-to-day campus life.
This is where you bring out your school’s “fun factor.” Show off your community and accentuate student-generated content whenever you catch them in high spirits. Bring out student ambassadors to act as cultural guides, getting students involved with activities. Do what you can to provide recreational spaces and facilities, which can be anything from a tennis court to a cozy study lounge. Sponsor special activities, be it “social media challenges” that facilitate wacky photos, scavenger hunts, game tournaments, anything that gets the kids to blow off some steam.
The marketing mantra is “find a need and fulfill it.” When you understand what your students are looking for, you can tailor your marketing message to address their interests. This helps you create useful content that answers student questions and helps you appeal to the student on the level of being “in touch” with what they need.