Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

March 2011 Archives

Marketing online programs: areas of interest, "gainful employment," careers in marketing

Today we wrap up our interview with Nancy Prater, director of marketing and communications at the School of Extended Education at Ball State University.

We'll have a second interview in this new series sometime in April.

The first part of the interview, including social media in recruitment, mobile marketing and more, was posted last week. 

To follow-up directly with Nancy on anything here, contact her by email


Do you see a significant difference between interest in bachelor's and master's level programs? Do you expect the current interest level to change in the next few years.

  • At Ball State, we have had a much larger percentage of graduate students than undergraduates in our online classes.
  • However, due to many factors coming together at the same time--most especially the Great Recession and the increased acceptance of online education as a quality option--our undergraduate population is starting to rise. We are starting to see a significant increase of adult learners in our bachelor's degree completion program. Plus, we have added some new undergraduate certificates---such as in emerging media journalism and apartment management--that seem to be attracting working or unemployed adults who are seeking to improve their professional skills and marketability.
  • Our adult learners are very practical in their approaches to their education. They want to see how this will benefit them today, as well as tomorrow.

The "for-profit" sector is under scrutiny from the federal government right now. Would the "gainful employment" rule have an impact on schools like Ball State if it is adopted?

  • I think the intense scrutiny that the for-profit education sector is undergoing is going to be a challenge to all of us for awhile. There are a lot of knee-jerk reactions going on right now as government officials are realizing that some high-profile, for-profit universities have benefitted from students' financial aid, while some students are strapped with an unmarketable degree and, often, a large student debt.
  • It's probably too early to say how the gainful employment rule might impact public institutions like Ball State until the final version has been released. However, I think it is part of an overall trend of the federal government getting more involved in higher education. And I think that trend will continue no matter which party is in power, because higher education is such a key factor in the United States' ability to influence and compete in a global marketplace.

Any special advice for people thinking about a career in higher education marketing?

  • "Run. Run like the wind!" 
  • Seriously, anyone who knows me will tell you how much I love this work. I have always said--and still believe--that promoting higher learning to improve people's lives is a noble profession. And, for the other marketing professionals I work with at Ball State or am acquainted with from other institutions, I know there is a lot of personal satisfaction in what we do. While it is true that you may not make as much money and the politics can be maddening, higher education marketing is a terrific field to enter. It's especially good if you like constant change and constant challenge.

Nancy, thanks for sharing your time and insights.


That's all for now

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· Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" at

A New Series of Higher Education Marketing Interviews

Nancy Prater is Director of Marketing and Communications at the School of Extended Education at Ball State University. I've always been impressed with Nancy's enthusiasm for higher education marketing as well as her ability to separate substance from silliness in planning marketing activities and evaluating the results.

Nancy agreed a few weeks ago to be first in a new series of higher education marketing reports from people who have agreed to share their experiences and insights.

If you want to follow up with Nancy on anything below, you can contact her by email.

Part II: Look for the second part of Nancy's interview next Tuesday, March 29.

Nancy, tell us about your responsibilities at Ball State and how "marketing" in this position differs from your earlier marketing experiences.

  • That's a good question. I was formerly Ball State's Web site coordinator and worked out of our central marketing and communications office. In that position, I had to keep a wide perspective of ALL the various audiences Ball State serves. Now, I get to concentrate on adults learners and their specific needs. Plus, I enjoy being involved in a wider range of marketing activities. I am also learning that in a centralized university communications office, you are generally charged with only one of the four "Ps" in marketing -- promotion. But, in online and distance education, you have a chance to be more influential with the other three Ps -- product, place, and even to some extent, pricing. 

What are the major challenges you face, short-term and long-term?

  • One of our short-term goals, which I expect to be long-term, is managing growth, while maintaining our quality. We have experienced a 226 percent increase in the number of people taking online courses during the past five years, and the pace isn't slowing. At the same time, 92 percent of our online students report they are very satisfied or satisfied with the overall quality of their academic program. We don't want to lose that.
  • Another goal is helping faculty understand the value of online education. While we have professors who have embraced online teaching and are the leaders in this field, like many universities we have a large number of faculty who are unsure about this relatively new delivery method. But, the clock is not every going to be turned back. More and more students (both traditional undergraduates and adult learners) are getting turned on to the benefits and rewards of online classes.

Ball State has Twitter and Facebook sites for "Online and Distance Education." How important are these to successful recruitment?

  • You might be expecting me to say "very." But, I have to be honest and say that at this moment, while it is one more tool we have to engage prospects, we can't (yet) tie it directly to increased recruitment. We are reviewing our strategy right now with those efforts, and I think in the future will be concentrating more on engaging students in social media toward the end of the recruitment funnel -- after they have applied and been admitted.

I'm intrigued by the name used on your website: Online and Distance Education. Most universities would use "distance" or "online" but not both. Why are they combined at Ball State?

  • Well, it is still the most accurate description of what we do. Plus, it matches the most popular Web search terms used to find programs like ours -- a factor that influenced the decision to name it that a few years ago during a Web site redesign. While the majority of our programs and classes are online, we also offer many on-site courses in our distance locations in the greater Indianapolis area. I should also note that we never use our organizational name of "School of Extended Education" to our prospective students or on our Web site. Our name means something to us internally, but the more descriptive "Online and Distance Education" is more understandable to those who don't know us.

Everyone is talking about "mobile" today. Do you see mobile apps or a mobile website as important to recruiting "online and distance" students?

  • I think we will all look back in about five years, laugh, and say, "Remember when we thought we could ignore the mobile Web? What were we thinking?" We will be in the same category of those folks who said the Internet is a passing fad. Of course, that means as marketers, we are adding one more thing to our toolkit. I just hope we can let something go (think viewbook or other expensive printed pieces), but it never seems to work out that way in marketing. We just keep adopting new tools, while being too afraid to let go of the old ones.

Part II: Our interview with Nancy Prater continues Tuesday, March 29.

That's all for now

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· Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" at

University of Phoenix, John Sperling, and the For-Profit Sector

John Sperling, founder of University of Phoenix and Apollo Group, is concerned for his legacy. That was noted in a December 29 Bloomberg News article that's being discussed on LinkedIn by people in the Inside Higher Ed group. Earlier today I added a comment that, with a little editing, I'm adding here as well.

Sperling's concern is fueled in no small part by Sen. Tom Harkin's Senate hearings that suggest that the for-profit sector has placed profits over student success to an unusual and detrimental extent. But scrutiny of practices at Phoenix didn't start with Senator Harkin. Wikipedia outlines a series of lawsuites and financial settlements from 2000 to 2010.

John Sperling's Legacy 

Excuse me, but I'm not crying just yet for any damage done to Sperling's legacy.

The University of Phoenix in the mid-1990s did higher education and many adult students a service when it arrived on the national higher education scene and began offering degree programs for adults at times and in locations that most non-profit colleges and universities were not doing. There were exceptions. National University was already doing this throughout California. Here in Michigan, Central Michigan University was an earlier pioneer in paying attention to the needs of working adults.

I remember when Phoenix first received regional accreditation. The academic VP I worked for then was shocked. Phoenix, after all, had no library and few, if any, full-time faculty. He couldn't imagine that anyone would enroll for a degree at a place like that. Meantime, I kept a list from the Registrar's office of students asking to transfer for some combination of lower tuition and more convenient locations. 

Competition from Phoenix was strong enough that more schools started giving classes in locations that were more convenient to potential students. Employed adults, especially those with families, were pleased. Phoenix had made an important contribution to shaking up a system that needed reinvention.

University of Phoenix in the 1990s 

Remember the early days of admission to the University of Phoenix?
You had to be employed (employer reimbursement was key to tuition payment then) and you had to be at least 23 years old.

One element in the financial model was key: almost all courses were staffed the way most institutions staffed summer sessions, with part-time faculty. With part-time faculty pay, the path to making money in higher education is not difficult if you can fill the classes with any reasonable enrollment level.

Sperling founded the Apollo Group in 1973 and University of Phoenix in 1976. By 1996, Phoenix enrolled about 38,000 students throughout the United States. Life was good. It was about to get better. 

University of Phoenix by 2007

Phoenix had been a publicly-traded company since the early 1990s. Sometime after that 20th anniversary in 1996, in the period of go-go economic growth that crashed in 2008, came strong pressure to maintain a rapid pace of enrollment increase to sustain continued increase in the value of the stock. Online degree programs provided a far easier path to that growth than expansion of in-class programs. The gold rush was underway. Online enrollment zoomed past the in-class sector.

For several years, attention to whether or not people admitted were actually finishing their degrees was, to be charitable, lax. Wall Street was more interested in growth than profitability from a stable or modestly growing enrollment. The for-profit sector, it appears, bowed to that pressure. I still remember my conversation with an investment firm in 2007 that asked if the rate of enrollment growth over the past 5 years could be sustained. (It seemed unlikely by any reasonable measure.) Profitability was not nearly as interesting as the growth rate.

Enrollment Growth to Maintain Stock Price Growth

Executive leadership at Apollo Group made the decisions to generate the highest possible enrollment growth to fuel the highest possible stock prices. My opinion, of course, without access to any insider information. In the climate that prevailed until 2008, they could do that with little fear of serious oversight from either the Department of Education or an accrediting agency.

A correction was long overdue. The present hearings by Senantor Harkin's Senate committee have contributed to the changes taking place now in the for-profit sector. Better admission screening, different compensation plans for recruiters, and more attention to retention are three elements that might restore the for-profit sector.

John Sperling: A Revolutionary

Weep not for John Sperling. He revolutionized attention to working adults in higher education when a revolution was needed. He isn't as wealthy now as he was before Apollo Group stock prices fell. But he'll get along. And, I suspect, University of Phoenix will  thrive in coming years even if the stock price itself is slow to return to earlier high levels.

That's all for now 

·  Join me on Twitter at

· Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" at 

Early spring greetings to everyone. We are still looking at snow here in Michigan but the days are longer, the temperatures warmer and the first crocus is not long away.

The higher education landscape is in flux these days, from the U.S. to the U.K. and just about everywhere else. Combine that with continued technology advances and opportunities are plentiful for innovative and fearless marketers. There is no better place to meet marketers and share experiences in the brave new world than at an upcoming conference.

You can still get an early $100 discount for Carol Aslanian's adult student recruitment and retention conference in Chicago, March 31 to April 1 at

For a conference with an international cast of speakers, attend the J.Boye Philadelphia2011 in May for the higher education track and much more at

Interested in presenting? Marketers are welcome at eduWeb2011 in August and the call for paper proposals is open until March 18 at

And now here are your marketing news and notes for March.
WikiLeaks for Higher Education

From Australia comes a new website seeking information from within universities similar to what's been revealed from the WikiLeaks site about governments. The Unileaks motto: "Keeping Education Honest."

While the initial interest reportedly is on universities in Australia and the U.K, the website already has an "Open Letter to American College Presidents" rotating on the home page. The letter promises not to publish rumors but only "hard evidence of malfeasance and corruption."

Check what's happening at
Mobile Marketing: 4 Tips for Student Recruitment

Mobile apps and sites for student recruitment will expand greatly in 2011 as more schools realize it is a mandatory part of the marketing communications mix. But how is this new tool used most effectively for student recruitment?

Think first of showcasing your academic programs right from the mobile home page. Plan now to escape the danger of linking people from a clean mobile home page to an academic program page on your regular website.

More in my blog post at
Gerry McGovern Podcast on Content Strategy vs. Task Completion

Content strategy is a hot topic for 2011. My Customer Carewords partner Gerry McGovern has been writing and speaking about content for 15 years now, but he is a bit afraid that the new emphasis on content strategy might divert attention from the real end goal of task completion.

His podcast interview and transcript in advance of an upcoming London content strategy conference is available now at
Jakob Nielsen: New Research on Reading Mobile Content

In his latest Alertbox update, Nielsen presents research that reinforces the obvious: it is much more difficult to read online content from an iPhone size screen than from a regular computer screen or an iPad.

When designing your mobile site or app, that means paying extraordinary attention to site design and essential content. Check "Mobile Content is Twice as Difficult" at
The "Research Model" in Higher Education

As the higher education landscape shifts here in the U.S., the future of regional public universities with academic structures modeled after national research universities is in doubt.

That's the premise of a Chronicle of Higher Education article that highlights the history of Winona State University since 1858. The possible future: for-profit institutions forced to change operations to adopt more selective admissions and deliver a higher quality education will pose a new marketing challenge to regional public universities that are slow to shed the high cost trappings of research universities. Enrollments will shift.

Read "The Dangerous Lure of the Research-University Model" at
SEO: 15 Questions to Improve Your Search Results

Stoney deGuyter gives us 15 questions (and his answers) to improve the visibility of your website for search engines in a 3-part series.

Start with "What is the most important element of a successful SEO campaign?" (site architecture) and skim through to the end, stopping at what most intrigues you. His advice on page title tags was not a surprise but I had not thought about the possible impact of bounce rates on search standing.

Begin your visit at
Social Media Site Popularity

If you have limited staff and dollar resources for social media, use Hitwise stats to help you stay focused on Facebook and YouTube.

Everyone knows Facebook dominates social media with over 60 percent of social media visits, but not everyone realizes the importance of video. That becomes more obvious when you see that YouTube wins 19.5 percent of social media traffic.

MySpace clings to third place at a distant 1.5 percent of traffic.

Follow the Hitwise weekly updates at
Michael Wesch in 2011

The Kansas State University professor is still creating videos that challenge the traditional higher education student classroom experience, in this case edited from student submitted videos.

Agree or disagree, he makes you think. See "The Visions of Students Today" at
8 Ways to Fix Higher Education: Vote for Your Favorite

The "fixes" for what ails higher education in this Washington Post article range from ending merit aid to a cap on athletic subsidies to restoring general education curriculums.

Read the article, vote for what you think is most important, and find out how others have voted at
4 Worst Social Media Marketing Campaigns

Yes, even major corporations can launch really poor marketing efforts in social media, or so says Rebecca Lieb at AdAge. That includes VW, Cisco, Dell and more.

Learn what you should not do in social media marketing at
Applications Plunge, College is Happy

Everyone knows there has been an application race underway for years now, fueled in part by the ability of direct marketing campaigns to generate high numbers of low yielding applications late in the admissions cycle.

Ursinus College gained NY Times notoriety when applications dropped by nearly 33 percent after increasing in two years (2005 to 2007) from 1,725 to 6,179. What happened? Ursinus ended a "fast app" campaign responsible for the application increase.

Read more about the rationale and the new enrollment expectations at
Online Magazines Done Right for the Web

I am a big fan of online magazines created in a web-friendly style likely to engage visitors. No PDF or flip tech formats. Examples this month from Biola University and Harvard University prove that there really is no excuse for not getting it right, regardless of institutional style and resources.

Visit the winter issue from Biola at and the March/April issue from Harvard at
My Upcoming Conferences and Webinars in 2011

Attend an upcoming conference to share questions and answers with people like you who are building a competitive edge in higher education marketing. Join me at these events.

March 31-April 1, Education Dynamics Carol Aslanian Conference: Converting Credits to Degrees: 38 Million Adults to Recruit, Chicago, IL: "Creating (or Re-Creating) an Adult-Friendly Website." Review program and register at

May 3-5, J.Boye Conference Philadelphia 2011, Pre-conference tutorial "Mobile Communication Challenges in Higher Education" and "Susquehanna University: Achieving a 90% Positive Web Rating." Register at

May 19, May 26: Academic Impressions Webinars: "Writing Right for the Web: Social Media, Mobile, and Traditional Sites." Register for one or both at

June 8-10, SUNY CUAD Annual Conference, Saratoga Springs, NY: "Mobile Marketing in Higher Education: Challenges & Opportunities" and "Future Students and Their Parents: Exploring a 90% Positive Website Rating." Visit

July 20-22, ACT Enrollment Planners Conference, Chicago, IL: Pre-conference mobile marketing workshop and regular conference session. Details online soon.

Improve 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.
• Customer Carewords Research with Gerry McGovern
• Writing Right for the Web On-Campus Workshops
• Marketing Communications Website Review
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