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A student-first approach to higher education marketing

While working at another university, Jaime L. Hunt was part of a marketing team committed to helping make the school the first-choice institution for prospective students. At the time, the university had the reputation of being a “fall back” school for students who didn’t get into their first choices. The university’s marketing team conducted surveys and focus groups to learn why the school had garnered that perception, and then took deliberate action to combat the negatives to shore up the positives and shift the focus of that mentality.

Four years later, the percentage of students who said the institution was their first choice jumped by nearly 50%.

The strategy was a valuable lesson learned for Hunt, who today serves as Vice President, and Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at Miami University. In a post-pandemic landscape, where many higher education institutions are struggling with generating applications and enrolling students, being able to take the deep dives necessary to offset the shortage is critical. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, more than one million fewer students are enrolled in college now than before the pandemic began. All told, US colleges and universities saw a drop of nearly 500,000 undergraduate students in the fall of 2021, continuing a historic decline that began the previous fall.

“That is a huge loss to an industry already facing a demographic decline,” Hunt says. “This will require institutions to be even more sophisticated in their efforts to reach students.”

“You have to know your audiences and message strategically to them. Applicants have different motivations for attending college.”
— Jaime Hunt, VP/Chief Communications & Marketing Officer, Miami University

One of the strategies that Hunt believes is most important is having an omni-channel strategy. Prospective students and their parents, who are huge influences on the college decision, need outreach across a broad range of channels, from traditional print to emerging social channels. “You have to know your audiences and message strategically to them,” says Hunt. “Applicants have different motivations for attending college. For some, they are driven by self-discovery. Others have concrete goals and see higher ed as a path to accomplishing those goals. Still others want a vibrant social life, while some want to be focused entirely on school work. It’s important to show how your institution serves all those audiences.”

Today is an interesting and perplexing landscape for both universities and students. Many prospective students have a fear that they are trading a short-term gain for a long-term loss, i.e., the longer they stay away from college, the harder it becomes to go back. Putting that student hat on becomes much harder when you are earning a paycheck.

Even before the pandemic, workers across a variety of industries were facing a skills gap crisis. And while it is unclear how all these industries will address the economic ripples that have only grown, some colleges are doing what it takes to incentivize new students. Take Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, a community college that waived application fees and extended deadlines to entice returning and prospective students.

Hunt believes that finding ways to connect with what prospective students are thinking, especially in a climate that is shifting into a post-pandemic vibe, is important to understanding their makeup and motivations. “Then you can adapt your messaging accordingly,” Hunt says. “Your students are the face of your brand. If they are not having a positive experience or if your brand promise doesn’t align with what is delivered, that disconnect will come back and bite you. Word of mouth is an important driver of enrollment.”

College classroom with desks and large blackboard

Defining your value proposition

Founded in 1982, the University of Health Sciences Antigua (UHSA) is dedicated to educating exemplary physicians, nurses, postgraduates and researchers. Its graduates go on to meet the highest professional standards in clinical, biomedical and behavioral knowledge.

As Chairman and President of UHSA, Adedayo Akande, Ed.D., has had a front row seat to all sides of the university’s continued rise to educational prominence. Even during the pandemic, the school, located in Dow’s Hill, Piccadilly Antigua, has continued to expand the breadth of its international programs and has even ventured into new areas of business such as psychedelic research.

As a medical college, Akande says UHSA continues to demonstrate the value of the education it provides and how that value positively affects the future of its students and the patients they serve. In the center of conveying that messaging to prospective students, working on its value proposition is more important than ever in terms of marketing strategy.

“Prospective students have dealt with the pandemic, where their economic future has remained uncertain,” Akande says. “So marketing to current students is essential, because as students gain a positive experience, they will proceed to become ambassadors for the institution. Often, our students are eager to partake in not only recruitment activities but also other processes which further the mission of the university.”

In the University of Health Sciences Antigua’s segment, student-first approaches look different from liberal arts colleges and universities. Student-first typically empowers students to take a more active role in deciding what and how they learn. While there is not much room for this in medical education, its teaching methods have changed significantly. Currently, students still face lectures and labs through problem-based learning. But students are independent in consuming the informaqqtion to prepare for examinations and, ultimately, the board examinations.

“In medical education, the curriculum does not differ much between schools,” Akande says. “However, some experiences are unique to each institution, which must be highlighted since it might gain an applicant’s interest. For example, our institution has a student-managed clinic in a tropical location, which is unique for students who might seek to study tropical medicine or wish to gain experiences that might not otherwise be available at other universities.”

“Marketing to current students is essential, because as students gain a positive experience, they will proceed to become ambassadors for the institution. “
— Adedayo Akande, Ed.D., Chairman & President, University of Health Sciences Antigua

Akande says that UHSA’s ability to hone in on the marketing aspect of the specialties it offers is critical. With so many pathways in medicine, students may not always know the direction they wish to pursue. When a university offers a unique path that might gain a student’s interest, it allows for the student to explore, even if it might not necessarily be the direction they continue throughout their learning.

“For our university, social media has been very effective,” Akande says. “Our target market is students who are university graduates and who are of the social media age. We have found that when advertising in this way, it has been very important to ensure that we are crafting a good story/message because the information is easily shared. It’s difficult to hide information in today’s world because almost everything is accessible and can be researched easily.”

In the end, the path to effectively marketing what you offer rests in your approach. The primary advice is to be transparent and honest in your communication. It is the strategy that best supports a student-first approach.