Marketing for higher education is easy, right? All you need to do is show photos of things young people like to do—like climbing walls, house parties, and sports. Right?

Wrong! Among other things, these stereotypes overlook most of the groups considering college today—whether for themselves or others.

We’ll discuss who today’s college students are, their backgrounds, why they’re attending college, and how to reach them with the right marketing messages.

This article is not “marketing for dummies,” though. It’s for aspiring marketers and seasoned professionals alike.

Who Are Today’s College Students?

For many of us, the word “college” still conjures images of white kids with different hair colors strewn across sylvan quads. Often, they have books open and are chatting in small groups.

There are no students of color. None with small children in tow. None with assistive equipment. Yet, according to the Gates Foundation, of today’s students:

  • 42% are non-white.
  • 40% are 25 or older (sometimes much older).
  • 62% work full or part-time to make ends meet.
  • 28% have children (including many “traditional-aged” students).
  • 33% come from families with incomes of $20,000 or less.

To put it simply, most students today struggle with issues like:

  • Money
  • Jobs
  • Family responsibilities
  • Discrimination and discouraging stereotypes
  • Disabilities
  • And many other circumstances (that are often hidden).

This is where we must begin our discussion of marketing for higher education.

Marketing for Higher Education Today

How do you market to a population of prospective college students that ranges from teenagers with “helicopter parents” to 40-somethings with families and full-time jobs? And how do you market to anyone, of any age, who doesn’t think they can afford college?

No auto manufacturer can sell cars to everyone. Similarly, college marketing isn’t a one size fits all proposition. It’s a challenge that probably can’t be met with a single campaign or any given marketing firm.

If you’re new to college marketing, select a limited number of schools to work with. Set practical (and practicable) goals. Then, see how things go for the first few years. Track your success with data analytics, using professional analysts if at all possible.

Remember, most colleges will look for measurable and promising results at the start more than at the total volume of conversions (at least in the short term). In other words, your firm needs to show promise to be retained.

Higher Education Branding

A brand is a name, phrase, design, icon, or other feature that distinguishes one provider’s product or service from its competitors. A brand is also something with which, when it’s successful, consumers develop positive associations.

Most universities have carried out multiple brand-building initiatives over the years for necessary updates. If you’re working with one that has done this recently and they’re satisfied with the outcomes, perhaps you should move on to other things.

Still, an effective marketing campaign is held together by a strong brand, so if there isn’t an effective one in place, this should be a priority.

You might benefit here from reading through the strategic plan of a college you’re interested in helping. You can find these online or maybe on the specific college’s website. If you can’t find the one you need, ask a college representative for a copy.

Understanding a college’s mission, vision, and core values is a “hidden essential” to marketing success. More than that, though, it will help you get a foot in the door with those who are skeptical about marketing colleges at all.

Involve Everyone

As a college marketer, you should be aware that many people see colleges’ mission broadly as being at odds with the role of marketing. Thus, to succeed. You must be very comfortable with how your goals match those of the college.

Who should be included and represented in a college marketing campaign?

Current Students

Provided they’re satisfied with their college experience, current students easily could be your greatest asset in a marketing campaign. Why? Because they are the closest you will come to the students you want to attract.

Look for opinion leaders, interview them, and enlist their help. Most of them will tell you how they feel about their classes, instructors, college policies, and a wealth of other information. It’s valuable and will help you identify the college’s strengths.

Make sure that the students you select to work with are an inclusive and representative group that includes, for example:

  • People of color
  • Adult/non-traditional students
  • Working students
  • Veterans and active-duty military
  • People of varying genders
  • People with disabilities
  • People of varying cultural or religious backgrounds

A diverse group can also suggest ways to craft appropriate and appealing campaign messages.


Alumni will be a vital asset in other ways. First, if they stayed at the institution long enough to graduate, they most likely feel a great deal of loyalty. They might want to support efforts to enroll more students.

Most alumni also offer success stories invaluable to the college’s overall marketing initiative when told, with photos of them in action. A bonus is flattering these successful grads to keep them in contact with the school.

Many alumni also offer internship opportunities to current students. These not only support the campus and its programs but also make great profile features or blog articles.


Sometimes, faculty can be fickle marketing participants. You need them, though, and it’s worth hearing what they have to say. With sufficient notice, most will make time for (in fact, relish the idea of) an interview.

One approach (with the administration’s OK) is to offer to have their website profiles revamped by professional writers. Assure them that there will be ample reviewing and editing opportunities.

The faculty interview can serve other purposes, too. For example, someone might share a successful teaching technique (especially for a popular general education elective) or a unique and captivating line of research.

Stories like these could highlight the university, college, or division home page.

Community Members

Communities do a lot to support their local colleges. Yet, historically, they have been left out of most publicity. That’s a shame!

 These include both lures and promises. Here are a few suggestions for incorporating the locals:

  • Find out if any local businesses or philanthropists support college scholarships, building projects, and so on. If so, tell the story!
  • Have local merchants or organizations sponsored internships? If so, get the details!
  • Are there local businesses (e.g., restaurants) that students frequent? If so, why not interview them?

A secret to getting various interested parties involved with your campaign is talking with people who are seldom approached for their perspectives. They might think their story wouldn’t be of interest. But who doesn’t like learning about other people?

Marketing Strategies

Let’s turn now to the marketing strategies many colleges use (and perhaps some that are just catching on). When trying to convert student prospects, having the right marketing mix is critical.

Common Content Categories

We’ll begin with some examples of broad but essential content categories—to include as appropriate.

  • Details and statistics on career education, preparation, and success
  • Accolades for the school
  • Special programs, including any for basic skills enhancement
  • Scholarships and financial aid information
  • Current social causes the campus supports (e.g., recycling, hunger prevention)
  • Anything else that is a source of pride or passion for the institution

In other words, try to replicate the campus experience through the content you emphasize. Making it clear what a particular college prioritizes can ensure the students who respond favorably continue to enjoy the experience.

Strategies That Are Visible and Tangible to Stakeholders

These strategies are the ones prospective students see and can respond to directly. They are often cited as things that impress prospective students or made them feel special or welcomed.

They also serve as pleasant reminders when choosing schools to which they will apply.

  • Lots of vibrant website and social media photos of the campus and active engagement—some annotated, others not
  • Engaging stakeholder stories with language that is both professional and trendy
  • Interactive information such as college cost calculators or findings from faculty/student research projects
  • A presence on popular and established social media platforms, preferably with student-generated content
  • Campus-branded swag (freebies like tee shirts, caps, coffee mugs, etc.)
  • Videos and podcasts featuring classroom activities, celebrations, sports, study abroad trips, etc.
  • Personalized e-mail campaigns targeting prospects

Once you get to know a particular institution of higher education, you will discover more of its unique niches. You can then add these to your marketing “arsenal.”

Behind-the-Scenes Strategies

Behind-the-scenes strategies are parts of most marketing campaigns. They underlie and guide more visible strategies, like those discussed above. Students and most employees don’t see these in their raw forms—only their resulting content.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Few content consumers are aware of or even care about what goes on behind the scenes in their web searches. That’s fine. But marketers need to know how SEO works—in general, and for college marketing specifically.

The keywords you incorporate in your upfront text or your behind-the-scenes code or alt text can make or break a user’s success in locating your site. In other words, poor SEO can keep an interested student from finding a college.

Today, several strategies mesh to form effective higher education SEO. These include:

  • Optimization for mobile technology
  • Excellent keyword research
  • Competitor analysis
  • Honest (“white hat”) link-building

For SEO success, you really need to work with a firm that offers the suite of SEO and related services.

Student Success Data

Student success data is protected by law (FERPA) when it’s connected to individual students. However, in the aggregate, it tells meaningful stories about institutions, their strengths, and their desirable attributes.

Competitive college programs like business, engineering, and pre-health often feature these figures prominently on their websites. They also show up on publicity materials that are shared liberally with prospective students and their families.

Other programs, such as those in the liberal arts, tend to focus more on individual or group accomplishments (accompanied by vibrant images). These might be published poems, research presentations, or artistic creations or performances.

There are many ways to display college programs’ sources of pride. Choosing the one that will appeal the most to future students is essential.

Research Behind the Scenes

Another vital part of marketing for higher education is knowing whom to target and with which strategies. At the start of this article, we discussed the diverse groups comprising today’s university students.

Missing the mark when targeting a specific group—or failing to target that group at all—can be fatal for a campaign. Let’s take the example of adult/non-traditional students.

This growing student population’s incredibly busy lives preclude diversions like movie nights or even field trips scheduled outside regular class meeting times. What they do want, though, is an acknowledgment of their status.

Profiling an adult student could remind the public of exactly who attends college today and why. It also can be a sobering reminder to “traditional” students of the life and accompanying obligations awaiting them later in life.

Stay Apprised of College Marketing Trends

Like all marketing trends, those specific to marketing for higher education are in constant flux. You can do competitor analyses to gain insight. You can network through professional organizations. You can read trade publications.

Or, you can do any of these.

Consider organizations like the American Marketing Association (AMA), the Sales and Marketing Executives International, the eMarketing Association, and others. These offer tools and resources that help you stay on top of current trends.

For example, attending the annual AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education is a terrific way to discover the latest college marketing trends and make beneficial connections in the industry.

Don’t Blink!

Do you know the expression, “If you blink, you’ll miss it”? That’s a great phrase to capture marketing for higher education as it exists today.

Higher education marketers need to keep a close eye on marketing trends and the dispositions of those currently in higher education. If you miss either, much less how the two can work in sync, you might find yourself out of a job.

We hope this marketing introduction has provided some help and insight. As a final word, we’d like to remind you that Local Finder has offered local businesses marketing services since 2016.

If you need help marketing for higher education, contact us today.


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