The university or college campus is awash in ideas meant to challenge and stimulate. All too often, however, it is also a place where “ideals” are largely ones devoted to the academic status quo: the groves of academe as a place with a particularly acute vision. Unfortunately, this vision is often facing into the past and resolutely committed to “the way things ought to be” as opposed to the way they are. This represents a challenge for small, private, tuition-driven institutions. A study by Keypath Education based on the most recent IPEDS data shows that enrollment growth is largely flat or declining in higher education and that the cost of student acquisition is rising. As a result, small colleges and universities are charged as never before with thinking clearly about meet contemporary challenges and whether their educational product and marketing strategies are forward facing. Only by asking some tough questions and being willing to follow through on the answers will institutions be able to craft a path to sustainability.

The Higher Education Landscape

Keypath’s analysis of the latest IPEDS datai suggests that there will continue to be challenges in the higher education marketplace. Enrollments in most segments in the higher education market are down or flat (p.1). The cost of attracting students to institutions is rising. We see declining conversion rates across degree levels and delivery and marketing channels (p.22). And it would seem as if student preferences are increasingly focused on specific career-oriented programs and not the traditional Liberal Arts majors that are considered the “heart” of institutions. The steady increase in online learning suggests a shift away from more traditional delivery systems. Even more telling in terms of a cultural shift in the perspective of educational consumers, the power of social media in marketing suggests a preference for visual presentation as opposed to the text-based approach that still dominates the academy.

Challenging Times

For smaller, tuition driven institutions, the ability to attract students is essential. To do so, the data suggests that it is critical to clearly understand what prospective students want and how the institution can position itself to both satisfy these needs and be perceived as doing so. This may
require some soul-searching and difficult choices. First, it is important to note that market trends and what they tell us about student preferences
are vitally important. Colleges and universities need to orient themselves in ways that enable them to thrive in the here and now, not labor under a doomed fidelity to a vision of how things were (or ought to be).

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