How Colleges Market to Students
Has your high school student received one too many emails that look like this one?
Middle State College thinks you would be a great addition to our campus in the fall of 2019!
We’ve heard about your excellent high school record and passion for community service.
Please come visit us soon!
Come hear about our tradition for excellent excellence, listen to our top- notch professors and learn about the special leadership and internship opportunities we have for top students just like you!
We think you will love our brand-new state of the art exercise facility, our wired-to-the-max dorms and our award-winning dining halls.
Click here for your personalized invitation to see our beautiful and friendly campus in action: https://MidState.edu/beststudentsever
We can’t wait to meet you,
Oliver Overly Eager II, V.P. of Admissions
How College Marketing to High School Students Has Changed
Parents of high school students across the U.S. do not need to be told that the college marketing efforts to woo high school students to their campuses are on the rise.
Starting as early as sophomore years, high school students receive numerous direct marketing letters, calls, texts, emails, and all sorts of mailers from colleges urging them to visit and apply.
In the old, pre-internet days, colleges and universities simply bought names of high-testing students from the College Board and ACT and sent out brochures and catalogues.
Skip ahead two decades and colleges are now busily playing demographic catch-up.
They’re buying fewer names from the College Board and ACT and instead, frequently turning to the same method the corporate world uses to market its products and services – Big Data
Colleges use Big Data to target their marketing efforts, to try to pinpoint students who will likely apply, enroll, and be a good fit on campus.
The more selective and sophisticated the college, the more likely it is to hire a specialized company to assist them with their personalized enrollment strategies.
Knowing that the students they seek live their lives online, colleges use data-mining to find students.
More than 50 colleges and universities including small colleges like Colby and large universities like Syracuse use a software called “Capture” to track web visitors on college’s web sites with the goal of reaching likely students.
Why is the Volume of College Marketing to Students on the Rise?
Experts cite these factors to explain the direct marketing uptick:
- A demographic decrease in the number of high school graduates
- Fewer students enrolling at smaller colleges and regional universities
- Difficulty in retaining students who graduate on time for four years
- An increasing desire to seek high school students of diverse ethnic, racial ,and geographic backgrounds
- Fewer families who have the financial means to pay for college
- The importance of finding full-pay families to offset the families with lesser means
What’s New in Direct Marketing to High School Students
It’s not just emails, letters, or phone calls.
Oh, no, that would be far too boring.
Colleges have had to get creative to capture a student’s attention.
According to the parents in our Paying For College 101 Facebook group, colleges bombard prospective students with all manner of marketing materials including those that are expensive to produce, artfully-designed and colorful:
How Do Parents Feel About Colleges Marketing to Students?
According to a recent survey* we conducted, with responses from 300 parents with high school seniors, 74% of parents felt their students received “too much college marketing materials.”
Only 16.8% of parents thought the materials received were “just enough.”
One midwestern mom, Jane, even wrote a blog post describing the start of the “onslaught” of college marketing materials in her son’s junior year of high school.
“Six letters, all on the same day, all promising to send my son a free book about choosing a college…and when he goes online… he’ll learn that why X University is for him…
The format was so identical that it was clear that this was a case of these universities hiring a marketing firm and not really paying all too much attention to whether the multiple versions of the same offer erase any hope of the prospective student being impressed by these offers.”
As the college marketing offensive continued, Jane noticed the eerily similar messaging in the marketing materials, as if they were all produced by the same Direct Marketing factory:
“Xavier University offering their ‘exclusive’ College Scorecard pocket-sized rating card.
Rensselaer invites kids to take an online quiz, Major Decision Time.
And the University of Denver offers an interactive quiz ‘Know Now: Discover your College Type Today!'”
Valparaiso University’s “Showcase your success: get noticed by your top choice school”
Texas Christian University’s “College Comparison Chart”
What Do Parents Say About College Marketing?
Parents suggest that colleges “take the marketing $$$ and put it towards lower tuition.
Jane sums it up like this:
“How much money are these universities spending on marketing, while simultaneously insisting that they need to hike tuition year after year?”
Parents participating in the Paying For College 101 Facebook Group have the same thought.
“I wish some of the money that goes into slick marketing pieces was put into scholarships!”
“Why not lower the tuition bill instead of sending very expensive marketing pieces?”
“Money talks to us…if you offer that, why not lead with it?”
Too Much Marketing
The consensus is that all this marketing is annoying, oddly-timed, and persistent.
Participants of our College Admissions Marketing survey were loudly critical of the sheer volume of the college’s marketing efforts and resented the continuous barrage of materials coming through.
“99% of it went directly into the garbage can…”
“Multiple emails per day, three mailings a week, several phone calls…”
“…3 different mailings on the same day from a random school which went directly into the recycle bin.”
“X College sent so many letters…They were super annoying, felt formulaic and didn’t help their case at all.”
“152 mailers from 64 schools in 19 states from the time my daughter signed up for the PSAT… Such a waste of money.
“Colleges that overdid it on mailings seemed really desperate.”
“Daughter received a “Why you should be interested in us” marketing piece after she interviewed on campus.”
“Marketing piece that arrived after application submitted.”
“Why send first-time marketing pieces in November of senior year? Too late!”
Points for Creativity
Some parents and survey participants (especially those with communications or marketing backgrounds) did call out certain colleges by name for their creative efforts.
- The University of Chicago’s coffee-stained piece listing local coffee shops was a hit.
- Kenyon had entertaining postcards.
- Swarthmore’s mailers were humorous and sarcastic.
- Macalester had catchy brochures.
- Carleton College used a lot of smart humor in its paper mailings.
- Lehigh and Notre Dame’s materials were nicely done.
- Wake Forest had creative email marketing.
- Sewanee sent useful, informative mailers.
What Did Students Think of the Marketing?
Most students were equally turned off by overly-frequent college marketing.
What were students reactions?
Their typical responses were they felt:
- Turned off.
- It was hard to get off the mailing lists.
- Refused to apply to College X because of persistent mailers.
32.9% of parents/students were most annoyed by emails.
A close second at 32.4% were parents/students annoyed by direct mail.
Coming in third, 22% annoyed by phone calls.
College Direct Marketing Had No Impact on the Majority of Student Decisions – But a Minority of Students Were Influenced
According to the survey results, 66.7% of parents responded that the marketing materials received by their students had “no impact on where they decided to apply to college.”
But some college marketing materials did prove effective in some cases, since 36.4% parents felt the marketing materials received by their students had “some impact on where they decide to apply to college.”
One parent noted that some of the marketing materials alerted her son to colleges he had not heard of.
Another said a marketing piece introduced “my son to a college he had not considered.”
Swarthmore wasn’t even on one daughter’s radar, but her mom said she applied in part because of their “brilliant marketing.”
A parent explained that her daughter had never considered Grinnell, but a letter from the college dean convinced her to apply – “Now she’s there.”
For all the money spent and paper used, less than 5% of parents felt the college admissions marketing their student had received had a “big impact on where they decided to apply to colleges.”
Not a great ROI for the marketing spend of colleges.
Advice From Parents About Colleges Marketing to Students
Regardless of how flashy and promotional the marketing campaigns are, parents and students should not automatically fall prey to them.
When asked what they would rather see than the bling, most of the parents said this…
Target your marketing efforts to high school students who might be truly be interested in what your college has to offer – the major, the size of the school, the community.
- Be truthful. If your campus gets snow eight months of the year, show us those pictures.
- Pay more attention to the environmental waste of paper; reduce excessive mailings
- Too frequent messages (3x a day, 4x a week) turn off the prospective students (and their parents).
- Don’t waste time having your college students call our son or daughter. They don’t want to talk on the phone.
- Don’t send the same or similar email and mailers to everyone. If you can afford direct mail, personalize your efforts.
The Future of College Direct Marketing to Students
Is College Marketing effective and how might it change?
For many students, increased marketing doesn’t result in making better decisions about which college is best for them.
“The question for students is whether this is a school where they’ll reach their promise or is it just a school with flashy marketing,” said Nicole Hurd of College Advising Corps.
Admission deans worry that as the pool of potential full-pay families shrinks, colleges may choose to focus their direct marketing efforts on students of families with greater means, leaving lower income high school students with fewer options.
Eric Maguire, the VP and Dean of Admission at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania noted that “increasing budget pressures will lead some institutions to increase their outreach to wealthier families.”
Jeffrey Selingo, a journalist specializing in Higher Ed, wrote in The Atlantic magazine in April 2017 that demographic changes among the college-going population will make colleges think differently about recruiting and evaluating students.
Will colleges still want to recruit students who might need extra help to graduate or will colleges modify their approach and accept only fewer, but well-off and high-achieving prospects?
Direct marketing by colleges to high school students may evolve, but demographics prove its here to stay.
Let the buyer beware.
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*The survey was conducted in December 2018.
By Nancy L. Wolf, who has successfully helped high school students craft compelling college admission essays for ten years. She was a partner at a DC law firm specializing in communications law. Since leaving the law firm, she’s taken masters level classes in writing at the Johns Hopkins University in DC and become a published author of articles, essays and fiction. Nancy now tutors international graduate students in writing and teaches English as a second language at the Washington English Center.