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Why selling the value of higher education is more critical than ever

Not unlike any other segment in today’s COVID-defined world, the higher education market is in flux. Despite what the experts may claim, nobody knows how the pandemic, recession, and political and social landscapes will change over the next year. So, when it comes to the whole higher education experience, if students are stifled as to where, when and how they can attend school, the prospects of its value may be in peril.

Do not tell that to Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). The private, nonprofit, accredited institution—which strategically sits between Manchester and Hooksett, New Hampshire—continues to push forward. Pre-pandemic, SNHU housed more than 3,000 students on campus and 135,000-plus online, in addition to boasting an alumni network of over 100,000, making it one of the fastest growing universities in the nation.

As for today? Right now, both online and campus enrollments have increased during the pandemic. Online enrollments were up more than 30% during its undergrad and graduate June term starts compared to this time last year, while online student inquiries are up more than 45% YOY compared to this time last year.

“People continue to view education as their ticket to a new job and a better life,” says Alana Burns, CMO for Southern New Hampshire University. “We are seeing this particularly with increased grad program enrollment, as many working professionals were laid off during COVID. Between layoffs and the disappointment of learning their roles weren’t essential, many new learners want the competitive edge of a master’s when reentering the job market.”

“People continue to view education as their ticket to a new job and a better life. We are seeing this particularly with increased grad program enrollment, as many working professionals were laid off during COVID.”
— Alana Burns, CMO, Southern New Hampshire University

The numbers seem to bear that out. For example, SNHU is experiencing an increase in traditional-aged college students enrolling online. In fact, it recently hired 200 full-time employees to accommodate its growing online student population. In addition, there is a significant increase in interest for its graduate programs this year—a reversal of a trend from previous years.

As for on-campus numbers, for new, traditional-age and domestic first-time-in-college (FTIC) students, enrollments are up 40% for fall 2020, compared to this same date for the fall 2019 term start. “During the 2008 recession, we saw similar trends of online enrollment skyrocketing,” Burns says. “Many furloughed or unemployed Americans decided to go back to school to finish a degree or to get an advanced degree to set themselves apart in the job market once it rebounded.”

Not all colleges and universities can sing the same tune as SNHU. Overall, there is a mix of attitudes, emotions and enrollment numbers impacting the higher education landscape, ranging from schools fully open, to schools fully remote, and some closing after reopening.

Burns says that higher ed marketers are employing a wide range of communications and marketing strategies, and responses to maintain and increase enrollment. “We have also seen a mix of schools that have maintained marketing budgets and some who have pulled back on their marketing spends.”

To keep things in a positive vein, the SNHU enrollment team has not changed its approach. It continues to use a combined mass media and digital go-to market strategy, and also employs an in-house creative and media buying team, which Burns says is critical to its success.

In the wake of the pandemic, Southern New Hampshire University launched its “Innovation Scholars” program, which offers a free year of tuition for campus-based freshman students to take their courses online. It also revamped its campus offerings to make them more accessible and affordable long-term.

“We continue to keep our students and consumers top of mind, especially as it relates to cost,” Burns says.

Wooing the value

To hear Tammy Ewin tell it, the University of Akron was extremely pleased that its enrollment numbers were only down -7%. When you factor in a worldwide pandemic that turned everything and everyone upside down, and back again, the university’s VP, Chief Communication and Marketing Officer says that student response and enthusiasm has been more than encouraging.

Right now, University of Akron students are sifting through campus life in a hybrid format—living in single rooms on campus while attending classes in-person and online. “Students have been very responsive to the campus protocols, which include wearing a mask, social distancing and meeting in groups no larger than 10 persons. It has also been reassuring to see how quickly our faculty, staff and students have embraced the technology and processes to deliver courses, provide student services and learn in a variety of ways.”

Having a high-spirited and embracing student body is more than any school and university can ask today, especially as competition was tough and budgets were limited pre-pandemic. And even though there are a new set of challenges to address, students are at least committed to the status a college degree holds.

“A college education is still incredibly valuable,” Ewin says. “I don’t believe that has changed for most people. Instead, students are taking this time to determine how they learn best and what they want their college experience to look like. These current extraordinary circumstances will definitely challenge higher education to examine every facet of instruction, operations and outcomes—all with students at the center of critical decisions moving forward.”

If you are looking at why the higher education experience is still so valued, Ewin says to look no further than the fact that humans value learning. They want to learn about things that interest them and about things they know nothing about. “People want to challenge themselves, and they seek an education to gain an opportunity to learn the skills and knowledge that will set them on a path to a bright future.”

More than anything else, students want a personal experience, if possible. That is why—pandemic or not—tours still are an important part of the experience. The University of Akron hosts both on-campus and virtual tours, providing invaluable intel on what students (and parents) can expect in the way of campus life, financial aid options and student support initiatives.

“We have to be responsive to student questions, be consistent in our messaging and frequency of contact, and be genuine,” Ewin says. “Not every school is a great fit for every student, so it is important to be true about what types of students your institution appeals to when crafting your message and then delivering on your promises to those students who choose your institution for their education.”

“A college education is still incredibly valuable. I don’t believe that has changed for most people. Instead, students are taking this time to determine how they learn best and what they want their college experience to look like.” — Tammy Ewin, University of Akron

So, while the future might be hard to predict, higher education marketers believe that the college experience will continue to be a valued proposition. The mission remains showcasing your brand in the most efficient, effective manner possible.

“Don’t assume you know all of the answers or that one tactic will work in recruiting all students,” Ewin says. “It is important to integrate the work you are doing. Mix up your digital with your traditional so that you are meeting people in a variety of places. The higher ed marketing landscape is changing at a rapid pace and marketers need to be nimble, adaptable and even somewhat unpredictable to best serve their institutions and appeal to students who will thrive on their campus.”