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Marketing a Mission of Inclusiveness in Higher Education

For years marketing was seen as an abomination in higher education. Reputation alone was thought to “sell” an institution, to attract students as well as funding. Yet, as the number of colleges and universities began to grow in post-World War II America, the competition for enrollments increased intensely – particularly as the first wave of “baby boomers” passed college age, diminishing the pool of potential students. As a result, institutions young and old turned to advertising to help fill classrooms and coffers. Today, it is a common practice, widely accepted in the higher education community.

In 2007, Lipman Hearne and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education released a study of marketing expenditures at institutions ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large research universities. The report revealed that spending on marketing programs has grown significantly in higher education, having increased 50 percent since the year 2000. Among the private schools responding to the survey, more than half operated with a marketing budget of more than $400,000 – and 16 percent had a budget of more than $1 million. Meanwhile, a study done by Noel-Levitz found that four-year private institutions spent on average about $1,941 per student for recruitment – a sizeable figure and more than 16 times the amount spent by public two-year institutions.

Yet, when it comes to recruitment, the majority of these institutions continue to focus primarily on what might be called the “traditional” population: high school seniors trying to decide which college or university is the right fit for their lifestyle. Today’s institutional marketers still aim largely for the 18 year old who plans to move directly from high school to college, live on campus, attend classes full-time, and be supported by parents -- students whose only concerns are studying and socializing.

In fact, what they target is a population which has greatly diminished in the current landscape of higher education.

According to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, the “traditional” undergraduate has become the exception rather than the rule. Now, 73 percent of all undergraduates are in some way “non-traditional.”

What is it that defines “non-traditional” students? They are individuals who for whatever reason have delayed their pursuit of a college degree. Some have a GED only; others started college years ago but suspended their studies. They work full-time, and many have spouses and children. They’re underemployed or out-of-work family providers seeking to build new careers out of necessity. Or they may be sons and daughters of immigrants, first generation Americans. They’re struggling to surmount not only the economic obstacles of the current downturn, but barriers of language, culture, and even basic academic and social skills.

They are people who need more education, not only to succeed, but to survive. Yet far too many of these potential students have no idea where to turn in search of their desired education. Traditional institutions don’t speak to them, as they aim their marketing messages at a more select population, and set admissions requirements at levels unreachable by a great number of education seekers, not in an attempt to determine who should be let in as much as who should be kept out. In ignoring non-traditional students, they prevent vast numbers of potential students from attaining a higher education.

Why this Disenfranchisement?

During the last quarter century, society’s conception of what a college education should be has changed dramatically: it’s no longer thought of as a privilege reserved for the few but as an economic necessity pursued by the many. This change in perspective is recasting the notion of the American university. Yet the shift has created tension between the old-school institutions — traditional in their structure, wary of change, battling for positions of prestige by investing deeply in exclusivity — and the non-traditional institutions that recognize the need for academic programs that can satisfy the educational requirements of a broad and inclusive range of individuals.

The University of Phoenix is just such a nontraditional school. From its inception, our status as a private sector institution that operates with a profit has been met with both controversy and envy in a field where mostly public, non-profit schools exist. But our for-profit status has served to unite us around a key concept of consumer behavior and that is, our programs must be of high academic quality and our services must be best in class because students (and faculty) will vote with their feet. In other words, while the best marketing programs can propel interest, only the best programs and services will attract and retain students and faculty. We seek to bring the reality of higher education to all who desire it and are ready and willing to work hard to achieve it. We are built on freedom, on open prospects, rather than elimination and exclusion. We consider higher education a vital force that informs and expands an individual’s opportunities, and leads people not only to think, but to apply that knowledge for self-betterment and the advancement of society. Consequently, our marketing program is aimed at informing the public that, for those longing for knowledge, alternatives to traditional schools exist.

We have built our university on a vision of inclusiveness and a social mission of providing access to higher education for underserved populations, in particular working learners. What has resulted from that commitment is one of the country’s largest universities, with more than 400,000 students enrolled both online and on campuses nationwide.

We certainly are not alone in our endeavor to raise awareness of alternative paths to higher education, to prompt students to explore possibilities for access. Yet we have found that in many regions of the United States our marketing has had a rising-tide effect. Students who respond to our marketing often seek out alternative programs in their local geographic area. We have often seen interest and enrollment in all adult programs grow as we enter new markets.

The notion of open access to higher learning, has been a cornerstone of the University of Phoenix since our founding in 1976 – and a main thrust of our marketing efforts. We are one of only a handful of universities, public or private, completely devoted to providing access to higher education, and one of the first schools in the country to tailor its programs specifically for populations historically underserved by traditional institutions. These are the core messages conveyed in our new advertising campaign, now running in print, over the air, and online. The pieces showcase real people against a plain backdrop telling authentic stories of their school experience and their lives. 

We don’t consider this simply a “branding campaign.” Rather, we see it as a vehicle for giving a voice to and spreading the word of our students, highlighting the dreams, aspirations, hard work, and accomplishments of hundreds of thousands of often-overlooked. The students in the advertisements have faced tremendous odds to achieve their academic goals. They are transforming their lives through education; our campaign is enabling them to tell their incredible stories. In doing so, these students are helping to dispel the confusion over what University of Phoenix is all about, reflecting what it truly is, a cause-driven institution, attending to the needs of working learners. As such, our intent is, through marketing, to advise and assure all who desire a higher education that the means to obtain it is within reach.

How effective is the current campaign? We don’t measure marketing as much as we measure how well we are accomplishing our mission and helping our students to achieve their goals. In that regard, the campaign has been a success.

Despite all the complexities behind growing the largest private university in North America, the formula for our accomplishments is amazingly simple: Establish a vision, improve your offerings based on years of feedback, and always stay true to your cause. 

We’re successful not because we are big. We’re big because we are successful in meeting the educational needs of working learners.