2017 Higher Ed Trends Roundup

So far, 2017 is proving that the higher education marketplace is getting more crowded and chaotic. Even so, there are many ways to cut through and move the needle on enrollment. Our internal experts on analytics, branding, programming, IT and more share their predictions and insights into how to field this year's challenges.

Analytics

Jason Meek | Director, Analytics

In 2017, we are encouraging colleges and universities to get all their marketing and market-related data into one place. This helps with so many aspects of making the most of your data. 

First, it will alert you to data quality or relevance issues. Second, it helps address one challenge that all industries have with data: access. You can‘t harness data from other departments when the existence of that data is unknown. We find that at many institutions, valuable information is falling through the cracks. By keeping data in one spot, however, you improve cross-departmental opportunities for data access and encourage data-driven decision-making. [See our article on data-driven decision-making.]

Especially in marketing, as the population of high school graduates decreases, and competition for enrollment heats up, it will be critical to be smart and efficient with your marketing dollars. Leveraging data will help — and advances in analytics now allow for micro-marketing by getting into the granular attributes of your target audiences. The colleges that understand these micro-markets will be the ones to break through and connect with prospective students.

 

Digital Analytics

Megan Danielson | Senior Director, Channel Activation

One of the best things colleges can do this year is understand their website’s analytics and then use that data to create better connections with current and prospective students.

 First and foremost, you’ll want answers to these three questions:

  1. Where are your prospective students going after they visit your home page?
  2. What percentage of site visitors are using mobile devices?
  3. What are the most visited pieces of content on your site?

The next step would be to update and optimize your site based on that information.

 

Creative Brand

Beth Allen | Senior Director, Brand Activation

Brand and program distinction will be critical for colleges in 2017. When the market gets tough or enrollments decline, institutions must ensure their positioning is uniquely primed to capture attention.

There is very little differentiation among marketing messages and visuals in higher ed. Even Facebook called attention to this “sea of sameness” in its Fall 2016 industry report on higher education. [See our previous story on the 2016 Facebook Higher Ed Report.]    

Colleges can break through by getting to know more about their target student and the niche audiences among them. Those institutions that can illustrate their uniqueness through storytelling, imagery and video will stand out and connect. 

Data-driven creative will also help colleges understand how prospective students respond to different messaging. We see students responding well to programmatic messages because students are typically looking for programs rather than specific brands. We also see colleges reluctant to use cost messaging in their marketing for fear that it could hurt their brand; yet, students are more price sensitive than ever. In the right context, cost-related messaging has generated three times the conversion rate than messaging without it. 

Additionally, we see many partners struggling with how to interpret their brand strength and feeling the need to abandon their brand principles in order to focus on online program growth. The digital marketing solution for brand awareness is to invest in content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO). This can be achieved without breaking marketing budgets and is within the capabilities of most college marketing staffs. [See our tips for updating your SEO tools.]

 

Enrollment/Admissions

Paul Kramer | Director, Student Experience

Education, as with all industries, will be evaluating how the new administration and related policies will affect its space. One area completely within the control of colleges and universities is how admissions communicates with prospective students.

2017 should be a year of ensuring that the admissions side of the house is operating as efficiently as possible to mitigate any adverse external market or industry trends. Prospective students will be concerned about financial aid and looking for schools that will help them meet their personal goals. From Google search results, we see that searches for programs and degrees are leading over searches by school name. Lesser known schools have a real chance to compete with bigger names if they can make a connection and demonstrate that they are invested in their students’ success.

 

Online Content

David Lungren | Vice President, Digital Content Solutions

Whether they are looking to complete a degree or go on to graduate school, adult learners are looking for flexibility, the opportunity to leverage prior learning, and cost savings.

Increases in Google searches for certificate programs, cost and tuition are notable. As students look for time and cost savings, competency-based education could help students satisfy both objectives. The demand for online learning remains strong, and more information about student preferences is becoming available.

Surprisingly, colleges are finding that students are most interested in blended learning opportunities — that is, a combination of online and in-person courses. Many colleges are offering online courses through online program management vendors (OPMs), but colleges should know that there are alternatives to OPMs. We encourage colleges to put their mission first, use tried-and-true course modules as a foundation, and retain ownership of their course portfolios.

Finally, online learning will likely see an increased emphasis on identity verification and examination security to guarantee the validity of credits awarded in online programs.

 

Programs

Amber Arnseth | Associate Director, Marketing

Industries in which both consumer and employer demand continue to be strong include healthcare, nursing and technology. But consumer mindsets are shifting in other areas.

For one, consumer demand for post-graduate certificate programs is increasing and, with this, opportunities for competency-based education.

Second, working adults are embracing alternative ways to boost skills without enrolling in a traditional advanced-degree program. Boot camps, digital badges and providers of online courses are growing.

Finally, demand for transferable skills will be strong. Fewer employers are reporting that new graduate hires are entering the workforce with the transferable skills required to do their jobs. These skills include problem-solving, decision-making, and the ability to prioritize tasks. Along these lines, the public continues to question the value of higher education. Concerns are not only focused on cost and return on investment, but on whether higher ed should focus on delivering career skills or turning out well-rounded graduates.

 

 

Technology

Todd Pombert | Vice President, Infrastructure and IT Operations

I see five main trends in higher ed technology this year:

  1. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) — Universities will come to the realization that implementing a new customer (or student) relationship management platform alone is not enough to grow enrollments. The CRM system should be configured for cross-departmental workflow and must be integrated in near-real time with the SIS and other technologies to deliver the full value of its capabilities. 
  1. Generation Z — This group will draw consumer-oriented technology further into the classroom. The evolving use of smartphones\tablets and social technologies with the rising consumption of on-demand content will continue to force educators to deliver learning experiences through new technologies. 
  1. IT support models — Technology support models will have to deliver more for less. Universities will partner via consortium models, use service providers to deliver 24/7 services, and consolidate IT groups in an effort to deliver more comprehensive student and faculty support for the same or lower costs.
  1. Virtual\augmented reality — Faculty will find new ways to incorporate virtual\augmented reality into the classroom.
  1. Student self-service — Technology will allow institutions to provide more self-service capabilities to students, enabling them to answer their own questions, register for classes, and make decisions based on their academic progress.