The 'C-Word' and Higher-Education Marketing

Being involved in higher-education marketing provides me with the opportunity to attend great conferences and seminars each year. I try to attend a variety of shows, ranging from technology focused to academic, and a variety of tracks. At each event in in the last two years, it has been increasingly difficult to avoid the “C-word.”

Putting potential vulgarities aside, the C-word I am referring to is “customer” (although in some circles, calling the student body by a four-letter obscenity would garner the same reaction as calling them “customers”). My ears first perked up when listening to a talk from the admissions team at Wayne State University at’s non-profit track at the Dreamforce event. The speaker asked the question, “How many in the room have heard the word ‘customer’ at an executive meeting?” About 40% of the hands in the room shot up. I had the pleasure of witnessing a similar survey take place at the Deshpande Symposium held at UMASS Lowell. The audience at the Deshpande symposium had a much more academic focus, and audible groans came at the mention of the word.

The focus on customers got me thinking about trends in higher education I see at Fathom when talking to universities on a regular basis:

1. Universities Focusing on Impact and Outcomes

There’s a big push, not just at for-profits but at all universities, to show impact and outcomes:

  • Impact is becoming more important in the grant-writing process at research universities
  • Outcomes are a component of state funding
  • Both are hot-button issues at non-traditional, online, and for-profit schools for some time

Some are concerned that this focus on impact, usually measured in commercial terms, is as at odds with the mission of knowledge creation and transfer. The consensus among university leadership seems to be that to bridge the gap, there needs to be a balanced approach in the curriculum – one that not only empowers tenured faculty to continue to lead the mission of creating deep knowledge and transferring it but also relies more on infusing a set of problem-solving skills that usually come from faculty with industry experience. The reality is that the vast majority of the student body—in, say, a STEM program at a state school—will not go on to work in academia. These students benefit most from this kind of blended approach, and when they go on to succeed it reflects positively on the university. To this end, universities are putting more energy and creativity than ever into their tech transfer programs. Proof of this investment is all of the business incubators and accelerators popping up on campuses across the country and world.

2. Universities Increasing Investment in Student Management Technologies

When executive leadership at a university says the institution needs to be more “customer-centric,” more often than not they are talking about enhancing the student experience – usually by way of pairing technology and process. The entire experience of requesting information from a university, researching a school, setting up a campus visit, applying, acceptance, and paying tuition is happening online for many students. This major shift follows the way today’s college-bound students prefer to consume information. Unfortunately, the preference to transact digitally has outpaced many universities’ ability to build the systems and infrastructure that truly allow an institution to manage digital student information in a highly effective and efficient way. We see major universities cobbling some technology together, but very few I have spoken with utilize a majority of the features available within their current technology, let alone optimize the customer or student-facing processes that the technology enables.

3. Universities Doubling Down on Digital Channels

As college-bound student preferences continue to change, we are seeing even reluctant universities participating more in the digital channels to better tell their story and take control of student enrollment. Fathom’s Education Quarterly Standard deconstructs this trend more completely, but from a 30,000-ft. view we see increased participation in online advertising of all kinds, and much more social media and content strategy expertise and creativity—all to engage with and attract potential students.

These three trends are tightly interwoven with the recurring theme of “students as customers.” Despite skepticism, these changes aim to make the academic experience more useful. One thing is for certain: There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in higher education.

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