6 Marketing Takeaways From The Best Higher Ed Conference I’ve Ever Been To

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Back in February, Inside Higher Ed hosted the first iteration of its 2018 Leadership Series—a planned slate of single-day conferences, each devoted to a specific issue sitting heavy on this industry’s collective shoulders.

The topic of the inaugural conference, “Higher Ed in an Era of Heightened Skepticism,” couldn’t have been timelier. For at least the last two years, colleges and universities have faced the crescendoing criticism that campuses have become liberal-agenda incubators hostile to views not in lockstep with traditional progressive values. High-profile incidents of conservative and alt-right speakers being shouted down, or barred from campus altogether, have only served to reinforce this perception.

Adding to the public’s blooming disapprobation is our nation’s looming student debt crisis, the attendant anger at the soaring cost of a college degree, and the even more flame-fanning perception of college executives as tone-deaf elites who’d rather spend millions on lazy rivers and tricked out residence halls than figure out ways to lower tuition.

When you add it all up and take a step back, “heightened skepticism” begins to seem borderline euphemistic for how fast and fervently public opinion of higher ed has shifted. For those of us tasked with marketing colleges and universities, this trend is deeply concerning indeed—it’s much easier, after all, to sell things to people who aren’t predisposed to hating your guts.

Of course, not everyone hates our collective guts (like everything else these days, perceptions of higher ed track closely to political affiliation), not all colleges are building lazy rivers, and the cost of most degrees is less than most people think.

If you work at or for an institution of higher education, you know this already. But you may also occasionally find yourself wondering, as I often do, How are we going to set the record straight? Who’s in charge of fixing this? What does “fixing this” even mean?

And that was the great strength of last month’s summit—it put so many people from so many different backgrounds into productive dialogue about these issues, and they all did their best to hold up a mirror so we could see what everyone else sees when they look at us.

The summit’s panelists—a murderer’s row of heavy-hitting industry executives, analysts, and consultants (Margaret Spellings, E. Gordon Gee, Catherine Hill, and Ted Mitchell, to name just a few)—spoke candidly and lucidly about our collective shortcomings, our strengths, and our opportunities for growth. It was a relief to see them in conversation and debate with each other, beginning to frame the pressing issues that affect all of us.

As a higher ed marketer, here are the takeaways that resonated most with me.


1) Symbols matter.


In an era of rage-fueled retweets and easily Instagrammable faux pas, there’s no such thing as a one-off. The public cares about lazy rivers. The public cares when college presidents are seemingly indifferent to sexual abuse scandals. The public cares when colleges claim to be forums for free and open debate but then exclude certain types of voices from their venues.

Even though this stuff happens with effectively zero frequency (How many lazy rivers actually exist? How many speakers have actually been shouted down?), when it does happen, it happens with eardrum-bursting amplitude. If you manage PR, I pity you. Your legs are going to get tired from holding a defensive crouch—but for now, that’s a position you need to maintain. It is imperative that you help your leaders understand the optics of bold or controversial decisions, and you must do your best to encourage their intervention when certain types of issues arise—inaction (even its appearance) can spark outrage and bring down presidents just as easily as gross ineptitude.

This doesn’t mean you should change your mission or deviate from your values—not at all. Instead you need to make sure that your messaging strategies, both reactive and proactive, are sufficiently savvy to survive these symbolic times.


2) Policy matters (call your elected officials once in a while!).


Before last month, I’d never heard of Dean Zerbe, the national managing director of alliantgroup, a tax consultancy that, according to their website, strengthens “American businesses by helping U.S. companies and the CPA firms that advise them to take full advantage of federal and state tax credits, incentives, and deductions.” But he was still my favorite speaker of the day, by a very wide margin.

Zerbe at first seemed like an odd fit among the day’s panelists, but his years of experience working on legislation in various Republican administrations have made him an expert on the ways that elected officials tend to view colleges and universities. His message, delivered brashly and occasionally combatively (and hilariously), was clear: higher ed gets lots of money from state and federal governments, and there’s very little oversight of how this money gets spent, and that makes elected officials uneasy and therefore unlikely to be automatic allies.

You could probably dismiss Zerbe’s opinions on political grounds, but that would be to miss the point entirely. The idea, after all, is to engage with those who see us differently than we see ourselves. He suggested that policymakers are hungry for this sort of interaction, and he encouraged higher ed leaders to reach out to lawmakers, to consult with them, to start participating in policy-forming processes.

You may not have staff dedicated to government relations (you likely don’t), but it couldn’t hurt to start conversations with the lawmakers who may play a role in controlling your financial future. Start building relationships today that can lead to mutual interests and shared understanding down the road.


3) The brand(ing) and the marketing are bad.


A common refrain from many of the day’s panelists was that the public was simply misinformed or not informed well enough about what higher ed is doing and the value the industry offers.

Zakiya Smith, who was recently hired as New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education, summed it up best. “We don’t give people good information” about what we’re doing as an industry, she said.

Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, added that the problem isn’t just a global one for the higher ed industry. He said that he visits dozens of campuses every year, and each one is extremely unique, yet the branding and marketing from campus to campus feels eerily, unfortunately the same.

We can and must do better. Our marketing must explain the value we offer at our respective institutions, and it must do so in a way that sets us apart from our competitors. The more that individual institutions succeed at this, the more the higher ed brand as a category will improve


4) The product must improve.


Over and over, panelists made the point that as our economy and our industries continue to specialize, institutions of higher education must adapt and change if we’re going to help students thrive in these new times. This means implementing new programs and new delivery models that meet the needs of more students—rigid credit structures and traditional degree pathways won’t cut it for much longer.

Of course, the irony is that the only thing institutions of higher ed are universally good at is moving slowly. It’s worth pointing out that our resistance to change and our glacial pace are not always bad—they ensure a certain consistency and imperviousness to passing trends and empty fashions—but they are increasingly becoming a liability.

As marketers, we need to speak up on our campuses and help our presidents and provosts understand markets and build offerings relevant to students who want to grow in those markets. We can no longer be content to sell the products we have—we have to start shaping the products we sell. Our marketing data and insights are crucial to this effort.


5) Price is a problem. Talk about it better.


Most of us insiders know that most colleges' published tuition is really just a starting point—the first scrawled number on a piece of scrap paper nudged across a negotiating desk. Before it’s all said and done that number, for most families, will be drastically reduced. But most people don’t know that, so they rule out many institutions before these savings can be discovered.

Panelists debated the issue of price briefly and inconclusively. Caught between being fearful of tuition resets (is low cost a selling point, or does it degrade the value of a degree?) but aware that something’s gotta give (Busteed suggested we’re nearing a tipping point), there was no clear consensus about what to do.

Based on my experience, I’d suggest a couple courses of action. First, I’d encourage schools with already-high discount rates to earnestly explore the reset route. That seems to be the direction we’re headed, and if you’re already going there, you might as well get there first.

I’d also encourage most schools to do more in their marketing to explain the merit aid they’re willing to offer, and to do it earlier in the enrollment cycle. Most enrollment offices wait until after they’ve accepted students to talk about money, but at Waybetter, we’re consistently amazed at how talking about cost—in a specific, intentional way—drives activity. Students who have completely ignored a school’s marketing efforts for a year (or longer) will suddenly pay attention when they’re alerted in the fall of their senior year not only that they qualify for significant scholarships, but exactly how much those scholarships are likely to be.

This is a win for the schools we work for because it generates real interest, but more importantly, it’s helpful to the students and parents who are about to make one of the biggest, most important, most expensive decisions they’ll ever make. Ensuring they have the right information is the right thing to do.


6. Pay attention to the big stuff.

I mentioned in the title of this post that this was the best higher ed conference I’ve ever been to. ­­That’s not a knock against the conferences I regularly attend (almost exclusively those with an enrollment or marketing focus); it’s simply an observation about the value of talking about stuff so big it’s almost unclear where one should even start. It’s a credit to IHE and their curation of the event that—from the panelists to the pacing to the venue (the Gallup building is gorgeous)—so much was said and considered, even if nothing was settled. 

I’m very much looking forward to continuing the conversation about higher ed’s uncharted future by attending next month’s event, “Mergers And Other Survival Strategies.” I know already that it will be well worth my time.