“Among higher ed martech teams, we’ll see the funnel narrow at the top and widen at the bottom,” says Brad Frank, chief marketing officer with Collegis Education, when asked what he sees happening in 2019. This reflects the impact of the fast, data-rich digital tools that have overtaken traditional marketing approaches.
Revenue was an emerging concern last year and in 2019 that concern will grow. No longer will increased enrollment alone solve financial issues. Institutions will find that in order to position themselves for success, they will need to look at four main systems: information technology, marketing, enrollment and academic programs. Looking at data school-wide vs. by functional area will be critical to support revenue growth.
This past spring marked the seventh straight year of higher ed enrollment decline in the U.S., yet online enrollment increased by 5.7 percent. Will all institutions be able to benefit from online programming? “Not likely,” says Terri Nierengarten, senior director of product and strategic partnerships with Collegis. Read on to find out what’s informing her view, along with what we see coming in higher ed martech, revenue growth strategies, artificial intelligence and more.
Chief Marketing Officer
Higher ed marketing will see more precision targeting at both the higher and lower parts of the funnel. Data and machine learning will allow schools to identify target groups that are similar to successful students at their institution. While the idea is not new to marketing, the extent to which new tools can capture and analyze consumer demographics and behavioral data will give marketers a greater focus than they have had before.
This will lead to more targeting higher in the funnel and more directed messaging lower in the funnel. Think “quality over quantity” at the top, then “right message at the right time,” granular approaches lower down. The result will be a changing shape of the funnel, with a narrower top and a wider bottom.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Vice President, Product and Technology
AI Drives Down Acquisition Costs
We’re seeing an increase in the deployment of artificial intelligence in digital marketing and across various touchpoints in the student lifecycle. Outside of higher education, we see companies leveraging the machine learning services of Google, Amazon and the like to drive efficiencies in marketing spend and to inform consumer content and messaging. This is creating marketing spend and conversion efficiency that is significantly driving down acquisition costs.
AI Increases Engagement and Reduces Operating Costs
In higher ed, we’re seeing the successful adoption of AI chatbots at multiple stages of the student lifecycle. With prospective students, we see AI chatbots being used to engage prospect segments to reduce enrollment center costs. With admitted students, we see it being used to proactively drive communication and engagement to help reduce melt and increase start rates. Finally, with enrolled students, we see it being deployed as a value-added student support service that delivers high student engagement while also reducing the costs associated with operating a student support center.
Get Prepared for Even More AI
As I look forward into 2019 and beyond, two things seem clear: First, AI is currently in its infancy. Capabilities in this space will continue to expand and create advantages for the institutions that leverage them. Second, since data is an essential ingredient to the successful deployment of AI, institutions will need a data strategy and robust data asset to take advantage of current and emerging AI capabilities.
Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer
In looking at learning technology, the two big trends we see with continued focus over the next year or longer are the data-driven institution and accessible learning.
Characteristics of data-driven institutions:
- They use actionable data as the foundation for a variety of learning tech initiatives, including adaptive and personalized learning, gamification, etc.
- They allow for economies of scale as automation, rather than manpower, increases.
- They easily meet the requirements to provide “proof” that students are meeting course and programmatic outcomes.
- They allow for targeted, just-in-time actions that have been proven to have meaningful impacts on learners.
Characteristics of accessible learning:
- It affords access and accommodations for all students.
- It doesn’t stop with mobile functionality, multiple formats or platforms.
- It meets current learner expectations of being able to participate on demand, from anywhere, at any time.
- It allows students to consume content based on the best mode for a given situation. For instance, listening to a lecture while running, or reading video transcripts while a child sleeps, etc.
- It allows all learners to participate in real time; enabling them to check class status and receive notifications of course changes (e.g. assignments approaching due dates, grades posted, communications from faculty, etc.) from wherever they happen to be.
Senior Director, Product and Strategic Partnerships
We are seeing tremendous market consolidation in higher ed programming. The top providers are growing market share in key programs such as MBAs and nursing. Specialized degrees continue to rise and this aligns with rising interest among workers and employers in upskilling and reskilling.
In order to be competitive, institutions will need to understand how their prospective students define value and speak to that. No longer will it be enough to compete on price. Some students may want flexibility, others may tie value to aspirations of going to graduate school, or to meaningful internship opportunities. Colleges will need to determine what “value” means to their ideal student.
But remember, authentic learning experiences can also be differentiators. Programs that tie academics to job skills are getting noticed by both prospective students and employers. Equally important is helping students prepare to discuss their skills and knowledge with employers. An employer may know that it wants someone with skills in digital marketing, but may not understand that those skills were integrated into a candidate’s business degree. Anything a college can do to help bridge those communication gaps will give their graduates an edge. And that, in turn, reflects well on the school.
Director, Student Experience
The commoditization of education continues to grow and the larger online programs are attracting students from all sectors. Student/user experience is becoming more important for non-Ivy/elite schools. Ease of enrollment processes can be a deciding factor – prospective students are increasingly seeing certain requirements as meaningless barriers. For instance, a required essay could stop a student from applying.
School differentiation messaging, due to commoditization, continues to be important. Colleges should consider how their messaging stands out both online and in person. Whether a prospective student is researching the school’s website, or conversing with an admissions representative, they should find continuity. The underlying message must answer the question of “Why would I go to this school?” But, the motives behind prospective student choices vary.
What makes a difference is when the prospective student feels that their unique wants and needs will be met. General answers are less effective with today’s prospects. They are looking for colleges that recognize them as individuals who want to hold onto what makes them different.
Price and debt are still major decision factors which make the student experience and school differentiation even more important. The likely return on investment (ROI) from scholarships, outcomes after graduation and internship opportunities will all play important parts in the value/ROI discussion.
Vice President, Strategic Partnerships
We are definitely seeing institutions focus on revenue growth that goes beyond enrollment, and this will continue in 2019. Schools are realizing that, in today’s marketplace, it takes more than filling the top of the funnel to enroll students while effectively managing revenue. Colleges that take a system-wide approach to controlling expenses while enhancing student experience will have a distinct advantage.
Essentially, colleges that are thriving are positioning themselves for success – both for today and long term. In contrast, a focus on any one symptom alone, such as enrollment, causes institutions to struggle. They spin their wheels as cost-per-inquiry continues to rise. They then offer tuition discounts to further entice students in their funnel who may not be fully aligned with the institution, and when compounded by a tremendously competitive market they find that any enrollment gain has left them with less than desired revenue generation.
In the coming year, we will continue to see schools struggle due to being unable to adapt. Some institutions have caught on and have adopted a more streamlined operational approach that increases efficiencies in IT, marketing, enrollment and programming. As they thrive, we’ll see more colleges embrace the same path. The question will be who will lead in today’s competitive environment, and who will choose to follow.
Online Program Management (OPM)
Executive Vice President, Partner Strategy
Colleges are beginning to look for new ways to tackle their revenue growth challenges as they find rapidly declining effectiveness with the OPM and search/list-buying models. At issue are a lack of accountability, lack of transparency, and competing rather than shared objectives. Among these are the sharing of revenue for online students when the base students are declining, and rapidly intensifying competition across most program areas.
Colleges are waking up to the fact that online enrollment alone may not grow revenue and they need to take a broader portfolio approach to determine how best to grow net tuition revenue.
Additionally, colleges are realizing that tuition discounting is a risk. In our experience, colleges that lower prices are actually reducing scholarships and grants in order to cover the cost of revenue. As colleges consider how they might attract the students they seek, it’s important to monitor revenue-per-student.
The enrollment market has certainly gotten tougher. But, before discounting tuition or offering a tuition freeze, colleges should also examine their brand differentiators, technology, and the needs of the incoming student demographic.