Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

January 2010 Archives

Private sector higher education: shrinking over the next 10 years?

In the proverbial interests of full disclosure, I am an Alfred University alumnus, have never attended a reunion event, and have been a very occasional donor. That last category was just frequent enough to keep me on the "alumni and friends" list of people who receive regular updates from the university president, Charles Edmondson. I read everything that arrives.

The president's Memorandum of December 11 focused on the "fundamental challenges" that Alfred had to meet to "remain the unique institution that you remember."

A quick summary of the future enrollment challenge:

  • New York state high school graduates will decline nearly 20% by 2019. The decline is greater in the NY areas where Alfred has traditionally had its greatest recruitment strength.
  • The projected decline is even higher among students most likely to enroll at a private sector college or university.
  • Demographic trends are not much better in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.
  • AU has never recruited well in the South and West and there's no reason to expect that to change enough to balance the nearby demographic decline.

For making public comments like these, the president tells us he's been accused of spreading "gloom and doom." I hope most people view this as trying to create a realistic view of what's possible and what's not in the next 10 years.

Tuition discount: $19 million from $54 million 

Tuition discounting plays a major role here. For the current academic year, the president wrote that $19 million from a total budget of $54 million is supporting financial aid awards. This year about 35 percent of the university budget isn't available for salaries or facilities or regular operations.

We as alumni are asked to "temper your distress with patience and understanding" as "probable" reductions in programs, "including a sports team," are determined.

With 2,100 graduate and undergraduate students, Alfred is several hundred students larger than when I graduated. It is more likely than not that in future years enrollment will shrink rather than stay the same. That's not "gloom and doom," that's a realistic interpretation of the likely impact of current demographic and economic conditions.

Survival in the Private Sector 

Private higher education is not about to disappear in the United States. But few instititions have the reputation and the resources to continue over the next 10 years as they have operated in the past 10 to 15 years. That golden era of enrollment growth and facilities expansion just about everywhere is over. 

If Alfred University and others like it survive and thrive it will be in no small part because presidents like Charles Edmondson are willing to talk about "gloom and doom" in public and ask "alumni and friends" to support uncomfortable change. 

That's all for now 

Tuition Discounting Increasing in the Private Sector of Higher Education

Getting information about college and university tuition discount rates is as challenging as finding the Holy Grail.

Tuition discount rate (the amount a school has to reduce the "sticker price" to enroll students) is an important indicator of strength in the market place, for everyone from University of Chicago competing against Ivy League rivals to far less well-known schools competing against regional public universities. Not many people like to admit it, but without substantial tuition discounting the private sector of higher education would look far different than it does today.

The current financial crisis (and that's still very much the environment for both the public and private sectors) in higher education has placed even greater strains on tuition discount rates. That fact was confirmed at the 2010 meeting ("Securing a Better Future") of college presidents hosted by the Council of Independent Colleges on Florida's Marco Island.

A reporter for InsideHigherEd was allowed to sit in on a meeting where presidents talked about the need for higher tuition discounting to maintain enrollment for the freshmen entering in 2009. The reporter promised not to mention any individual colleges. No individual discount rates were reported.

Steady enrollment but less tuition income

Here are some of the important points of that meeting:

  • "Most" colleges met enrollment goals.
  • A "large majority" said their discount rates had increased.
  • When talking about increased applications this year, a "bubble burst" as presidents acknowledged that there are not enough high school graduates to translate this increase into more students. (Without an increase in accepted students who are likely to enroll, pressure on tuition discounting will not ease.)

Other problems identified:

  • Banks that have reduced lines of credit and increased interest rates.
  • More reliance on "adult" students to maintain total enrollment levels and thus a change in the traditional profile of many colleges.
  • Interest only in academic programs with strong individual reputations. Parents are reluctant to spend $$$ on private sector tuition for programs without perceived strong rewards.

Private Sector Transformation

While "paradigm shift" is an overused term, the college president who used those words at the CIC meeting was on target. Many if not most private sector institutions will be far different 5 and 10 years from now than they were 5 years ago.

Obviously, "securing a better future" isn't going to be easy. The journey starts with presidents who can talk frankly to faculty, staff, students, and alumni who may have different views of just what "better" means.

Tomorrow I'll write about one president who is doing just that: Charles Edmundson at Alfred University.

That's all for now 



Website visitors... eager to offer improvement advice

Over the past year 16 colleges and universities have done Customer Centric Index surveys with various groups visiting their website here in the United States and in Canada, Sweden, Norway, and the U.K.

Until recently we didn't have an option for adding answers to an open-ended question, but several of the early participants asked us to include that feature. And so in three recent CCI surveys completed at Bemidji State University, Ball State University's School of Extended Education, and Rider University we added a question like this:

  • "If there was one improvement you could make to our website, what would you do and why would you do it?"

50 to 75 Percent Response

While we didn't predict a response rate in advance, the actual level was a major surprise. For Bemidji and Ball State, about 50 percent of everyone completing the survey took the time to add a written comment. At Rider, the only one so far to use a prize incentive to encourage responses, the response rate from survey takers jumped to 75 percent.

The message seems clear: ask people to help you improve your website and many will take the time to do just that.

Highest Concerns: Search and Links

Results of these last three surveys continue to confirm that two items are most likely to stand out as needing improvement regardless of who is answering the survey:

  • Search... in this age of "Google," people have high expectations that search will work well at their college or university. For most people, it does not.
  • Links... dissatisfaction with link structure is a common concern. People often are happy with content when they can find it. But too often, finding what they want is a special challenge.

Nancy Prater, director of marketing and communications at Ball State's School of Extended Education, summed up the value of the CCI survey results: 

  • "The CCI survey has helped us identify problems we did not know we had, verify customer service issues we suspected existed, determine what we are doing right, and give us important benchmarks for measuring future improvement. We are using this data to make adjustments to our navigation and Web site copy, especially as it relates to search terms. It is also helping us focus efforts on our most critical needs, so that we are tackling problems impacting the largest number of our Web readers first.
  • "We added an open-ended question at the end of the survey to help us understand the "whys" behind some of the responses. This provided us with more helpful and honest feedback than we would have received in a whole series of focus groups.

That's all for now.



Happy New Year!

This marks the 15th year since I started writing this newsletter when it was primarily a promotional tool for the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. Both the Symposium and the newsletter have enjoyed continued success since then. A special thanks to the many people who have been subscribers since the 1990s.

The challenges that plagued higher education in 2009 remain in 2010 as we continue to adjust to reduced financial resources, resistance to tuition costs, and demands for new programs and delivery systems. For marketers, it will be a time of special efforts and new accomplishments.

At the Iowa State social media summit in December, someone asked me what the next "new marketing thing" would be in 2010. That is always hard to predict but the mobile marketing world is sure to be at or near the top as we move further toward the world of Web 3.0. (The Iowa State presentation slides are online at

Join me this year on Twitter at and LinkedIn at

And now, here are your marketing news and notes for January 2010.
US News Rankings: New Reality Marketing Challenge

The 2010 US News college rankings are out and the overall results are not surprising. Harvard and Princeton lead the national university list. Williams and Amherst lead the national liberal arts colleges. The usual suspects fall below them.

What caught my eye was the category for "A+ schools for B students" with "less than stellar test scores or so-so grade point average." The schools are listed within four regions. After a quick scan of the Midwest schools, I am very curious to see how this ranking is reflected on university websites over the next month or so.

Is your school included as a special place for B students? See where you and your competitors stand at
Master's Degrees Mean $$$ for Higher Education

The NYT Education Life issue for January includes an article on the "New Universe" of master's degrees in higher education. Narrative Medicine opens a review of 10 popular offerings that closes with New Media.

As elsewhere in higher education now, market forces are driving these new programs as schools discover people are willing to pay major dollars for a chance at expanded career opportunities.

See the 8 others at and compare with your offerings.
4 Mobile Marketing Trends to Watch in 2010

Marketing Sherpa makes an important recommendation here: focus first on making your website accessible from mobile devices rather than on developing special mobile apps.

Although the data is from early 2009, the trend is clear in every age group: growth in smartphones (although not near 50 percent yet) and text messaging (over 50 percent at age 50 and much more for younger age groups) that will continue in 2010.

More details are at
Secret Lives of Admissions Officers: Daily Beast Report

Not much has changed since the 1970s: low pay and rapid turnover still characterize life for new admissions professionals. Read this and stay up-to-date with what the public is learning about what the article describes as the "secret police force" in admissions.

The article, with mini-profiles of 10 admissions counselors, is at
500 Web Editors and More: University of Southern Denmark

If your school struggles with the best way to organize itself for maximum website impact, you will not go wrong reading the detailed plan used at University of Southern Denmark.

One key to the plan is initial screening and ongoing training for 500+ plus web editors responsible for keeping web content accurate, current, and easy to read throughout the university.

Download the details from my SlideShare site at
Market Shapes Career Relevant Higher Education

The feature story in the January 3 NYT Education Life supplement was titled "The Utility Degree" and returns to the old discussion about the extent to which higher education should aid people to find career employment after graduation. This time, however, the overall tone seems to reflect an acceptance of current market pressures from the current economy.

With few student majors, programs in Philosophy and American Studies are at risk.

Higher education is an expensive investment and people are focusing more on immediate returns. And so curriculums change to better meet demand.

Michigan State and St. Michael's College are highlighted in the report at
Purdue University: Transparency in Financial Crisis

Higher education continues to walk a fine line between public acceptance and public disillusionment. The varied responses of major public universities to new fiscal conditions in 2009 often added to the disillusionment rather than the confidence.

Purdue University is putting weight on the transparency side of the scale with a website page that promises to keep the campus community and the public current with the last plans to weather the storm.

This is a risky step if people perceive the site as too much public relations rather than open public disclosure. Time will tell. Plan to check regularly at
Top 10 Intranets Add Mobile, Social Network Strength

In our Customer Carewords research this year for 14 colleges and universities, internal website users were almost always more critical in their evaluations than external groups. Faculty and staff were the least satisfied.

One conclusion: it is not easy to build one website that combines the best features of both internet and intranet sites.

Now Jakob Nielsen has identified 10 Intranet sites and the features that will make them especially successful in 2010. While none are in higher education, reviewing the list will help build a stronger case for a more efficient intranet. Give special attention to the move to easier mobile access and to the increase in social networking features within the organizations.

Check the report at
For-Profit Sector Capturing Military Students

Business Week magazine lays out in detail how the for-profit sector has won a 29 percent market share of college enrollments from active-duty military personnel. Call it aggressive recruiting or an enhanced "customer service" orientation, not-for-profit schools are falling behind.

University of Phoenix, for instance, has increased recruiters of military students from 91 in 2003 to 452 this year.

What lessons might the not-for-profit sector learn? Study the details at
Online Virtual Recruiting

Rachel Reuben at SUNY New Paltz gives a detailed review complete with screen shots of the online virtual college fair experience offered by CollegeWeekLive.

If you have a special interest in minority students or people from outside your primary recruitment area, check Rachel's report at
New FAFSA: The Marketing Impact

Kiplinger applauds changes in the new FAFSA, noting a reduction of 22 questions.

Down in the middle of the article is news that people completing the form will also have direct access from it to information about retention, graduation, and transfer rates as well as information about cost and programs available.

Is this a new chance for a late-in-the-recruitment-cycle comparison of finalist selections before sending off the form?

The Kiplinger article is at
100+ Higher Education TV Ads on YouTube

Interested in TV advertising? If yes, visit regularly a new YouTube site created by Elizabeth Scarborough at Simpson-Scarborough. Right now 102 videos are available. Expect that number to grow.

Pick your favorites at
Future of Search Engine Marketing

If you are debating how much emphasis to put on search marketing in 2010, then you will want to read a recent column by Danny Sullivan, a genuine search marketing guru.

In responding to a recent prediction that search marketing has lost importance, Sullivan harkens back to a similar 1997 prediction and gives good reasons why the current forecast is no more valid now than 12 years ago.

Search engine marketing is one component of an overall online marketing program and it doesn't make sense to ignore it. Read more at
Upcoming Presentations in 2010

Share questions and answers with people like yourself who are building a competitive edge in higher education marketing. Join me for one or more of these events.

Thanks to everyone who attended a presentation or webinar in 2009. I'm looking forward to meeting many of you again this year, as well as adding new friends and colleagues. Presentation event dates are included here for your advance planning. Look for updates to here and on my website as they become available. Exact titles below might change but the major focus will not.

February 2, ACT: "Social Media in Marketing Communications," Lansing, MI

April 7, Magna Publications Webinar: "Web Analytics for Enrollment Success"

June 3-4, Education Dynamics Aslanian Group Seminar, Marketing to Adult Students, Chicago, IL

July 21-23, ACT Enrollment Planners Conference, Chicago, IL

July 26-28, eduWeb2010, Chicago, IL Follow the conference program as it grows at

Increase ROI from your online marketing. Expand the writing, editing, and search marketing skills of people on your campus. Host a campus workshop on online marketing.

Contact me at
That's All for Now

Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. (
President and Senior Consultant
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC

Increase your online marketing success with these 6 services.
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