Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

February 2013 Archives

Finances, Brand Strength, Sustainable Economic Models... Grinnell Struggles with Brand Position

Grinnell College is one of the rare residential liberal arts colleges with an endowment of more than one billion dollars (nearly $1.4 billion in 2012). And it also has, the president has recently admitted, an unsustainable financial model. 

What's up with that?

The answer illustrates how much things have changed since 2008 for even the best endowed colleges and universities. It also casts light on the perilous existence of many liberal arts colleges with much lower endowments struggling to maintain enrollment levels and academic profiles without sinking under a rising tuition discount rate.

Grinnell College: Tuition Discount Rate is over 60 Percent

The tuition discount rate at Grinnell is over 60 percent. The formal definition from the National Association of College and University Business Officers: "Institutional grant dollars as a percentage of gross tuition and fee revenues." 

To recap: Grinnell takes in less than 40 cents of new revenue per dollar from a freshmen class. It has to give the freshmen class a discount of more than 60 cents on every tuition dollar to maintain the enrollment level and academic profile it seeks. 

That's the model the president described as "unsustainable." And if that model is not sustainable for Grinnell, imagine the perilous situation of many other colleges for whom much if not all of the discounting is not supported by any real money. Nearly all have endowment much less than half of what's enjoyed by Grinnell.

Grinnell deserves credit for an unusually public discussion of the problem that started last fall with campus talks about whether or not it would continue "need blind" admissions. The real question: how are we going to realize more income from our students so we can discount less and preserve our endowment? 

Sustainability Imperative: More Wealthy Students

The answer adopted by the Board of Trustees and announced on February 23 retains the "need blind" admissions policy for the next two years, increases loan levels students will be asked to take, and recruits more "wealthy" students who can pay a higher percent of the tuition and fees. The goal is to move the discount rate to about 53 percent. 

Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul University just wrote a marvelous blog post on how this would lower economic diversity at Grinnell. The college will offer what it no doubt hopes are modest merit scholarships to enroll additional students who can pay much more of the tuition than most present students are paying. Just how high that amount will have to be to enroll wealthy students with high academic profiles is a true test of brand strength.

Inside Higher Education outlined the plan quite well. You can also read the formal announcement of "Grinnell's Financial Future and Enrollment Management Strategies."

Merit Scholarships are Essential to Traditional Brand Position for Many Schools

The Grinnell situation illustrates the virtual impossibility of eliminating merit "scholarships" at most colleges without an acceptance of lower enrollment and/or lower academic profile. If you search for "Kenyon College president on merit aid" the first two results are:

The president of Kenyon College has joined a small group of other presidents to eliminate financial aid based on "merit." Her college is forced by the marketplace to do the opposite to meet enrollment goals. The Kenyon College endowment in 2012 was just under $180 million.

Traditional Brand Position and Potemkin's Village

Brand position in higher education is based on many things, but prominent among them is admissions selectivity and the academic profile of new freshmen. Many schools have always had to invest much more of their own money to  achieve and maintain selectivity and high profiles than others in their professed competitive arena. That created an illusion of brand position comparable to the facades built along a Russian river to impress noble visitors.

In the new reality of our post-2008 world where most family income levels have been stagnant or fallen and most endowment levels are not growing, more colleges have learned just how strong the desirability of a degree from their institution is compared to an ability to pay or a willingness to incur debt. Traditional brand strength has fallen. Since 2008 discount rates have risen at most not-for-profit colleges in the private sector.

Will Grinnell Win the Game? Check in Two Years

With a discount level of over 60 percent, Grinnell is playing a challenging game. It is fortunate that the new plan requires a discount rate reduction to only 50 percent. Enrollment professionals know what often happens when efforts are made to seriously reduce tuition discount levels while maintaining enrollment and academic profile. 

We will see in two years if Grinnell is one of the rare schools that can do all three.

That's all for now.

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4 Student Stories on Continuing Studies Experiences for Adult Student Recruitment

Here is a masterful blend of text and video for Continuing Studies that will also work with academic programs to recruit adult students for other programs as well.

When the "Continue Your Story" page opens, visitors can quickly scan the 4 stories available and pick a first favorite to read and watch in less than 5 minutes. Very nicely done. 

Each story is a series of slides with text content that's short, to the point, and large enough for anyone to read without squinting. Included with each story is a short video where each person tells us a bit more about his or her reason to enrolling and how their expectations were met. Quite believable video with no hint of a "PR" approach.

For a great example of how to let your customers tell your tale, visit the University of British Columbia "Continue Your Story" page.

P.S. This Link of the Week once again is on the blog rather than the usual website page. Connections to edit my regular website are broken today. We'll get back to the regular location as soon as possible.

Student Recruitment... how many ways to say "we really need your application"?

One of our 6 secret shopping schools made a special impression these past few months... the "private college in update NY" that sent 44 emails from June 21 to the most recent received on February 16. That was many more than the 16 sent from the second most active school reported last week.

31 "Fast-Forward" application emails offer special perks... and deadline extensions

The 31 "Fast-Forward Application" emails that started on September 11 are what put the "private college in upstate NY" far ahead of everyone else. What to make of that? 

There is nothing wrong with telling a potential student that she is of special interest and that there is a way to fast-track an admission decision. Makes great marketing sense to make someone feel special. The perks offered were consistent from one email to the next, including a fast one-week decision and no essay. Nearly all noted that the director of admissions (the person sending the email) was extraordinarily interested in reviewing an application from a "clever" person like me.

It also makes marketing sense not to overplay your hand. In this case, what was especially intriguing was the constantly advancing deadline to receive an application. 

Was the hand overplayed? Judge for yourself. One way to let you do that is to show you the date and frequency, and the subject line for each email, with an occasional extra comment.

13 emails before the first application deadline...
  • September 11... "(College) chose you, Rachel"
  • September 16... "Admission decision from (College) in 7 days"
  • September 23... "(College) wants clever students like you"
  • September 27... "Welcome to your Fast-Forward Application"... odd title for the 4th email
  • September 28...  "Did you receive my email?"... 
  • October 3...         "Rachel, you're a top priority at (College)"
  • October 8...         "Re: Your (fast) admission decision from (College)"
  • October 22...       "You're cleared to apply with NO fee"
  • October 25...       "Your Fast-Forward Application to (College)"
  • November 1...      "Your (College) Application is Ready"
  • November 9...      "Your streamlined (College) application"
  • November 13...     "(College) deadline approaching!"
  • November 15...    "Fast-Forward Application Deadline Tonight!"
Rachel missed the first deadline but there will be more...

  • November 16...     "App deadline notification for Rachel"... new deadline of December 1
  • November 25...     "(College): less than one week left to apply"
  • November 29...     "Urgent message re: your app status"... special benefits only guaranteed until December 1
  • December 1...      "Important reminder: Deadline tonight"
  • December 2...       "Great news, Rachel!"... "one more day" to apply
  • December 8...       "Looking for your response"
  • December 14...     "Rachel, I'm still eager to hear from you"
  • January 4...         "A New Year's gift for you: Apply now!"... Apply by January 5 for special perks including a scholarship possibility that "won't last long."
  • January 9...          "I'm waiting to hear from you Rachel"
  • January 13...        "Rachel, only two days left"
  • January 15...       "(College) app due when clock strikes midnight!"
  • January 16...        "I was able to get you an extension"... "one extra day"
  • January 22...        "(College) wants more apps from students like you"... "more time" but no deadline
  • February 1...       "Urgent notice for Rachel"... new Feb 15 deadline     
  • February 9...        "You could be accepted to (College)"
  • February 13...       "Deadline Friday... watch your calendar"
  • February 15...       "Rachel, today's your last day"
  • February 16...      "Need another day, Rachel?"... the new deadline is midnight today
Integrated marketing communications?

You can't cultivate someone without showing continuing interest. And Rachel never said she was no longer interested. She started but never completed the Fast-Forward application. But it would make sense to ask her directly at some point if she had any intention of applying to this "private college in upstate NY."

The "regular" emails from the school started in June and continued through October. None were received after that until a final and curious one on December 5. The subject line was "Call us if you need application help" but the message made no mention of the Fast-Forward application touted in so many earlier messages.

The mix of emails arriving in September and October soon gave the impression that different offices were sending different communication streams without any scheduling coordination. That was especially true on October 8, when two emails arrived on the same day. 

An example of integrated marketing these 44 emails were not.

That's all for now.

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Inquiry response emails... after application deadlines, only one active recruiter

If you've been following this secret shopper campaign, you know that I've been collecting email responses from 6 colleges and universities in New York and New England since late last June. If you're new to these reports, you can start with the first entry, "Enrollment Inquiries... do colleges and universities really want them?"

Now that January application deadlines have passed, only the "private college in update NY" has continued contact with a last push to get my "Fast-Forward" application. We'll get back to that end game next week after we see if the final deadline of February 15 is more final than the earlier ones.

And so it is time to begin sorting out what's been received. That will happen in a new series of blog posts over the next few weeks. Today, here is a first note on the great variation in email sent from our 6 schools.

Overall, our high school student received 89 email. How were those distributed among the colleges and universities?

  • "Private college in upstate NY" is the clear winner.... 42 emails
  • "Private university in Massachusetts" was next at 16 emails
  • "Private university in Rhode Island" sent 11 emails
  • "Most selective university" followed with 10 emails
  • "Private university in Connecticut" sent 3 emails
  • "Public honors college in New York" sent just 2 emails
First conclusions:

  • Email marketing was a key recruitment communication element for two of our schools and a significant one for two others.
  • And for two of our schools, email marketing to an online inquiry was a very minor part of their communication plan.
Case study: how to not do integrated marketing

Note that the "Fast-Forward" application campaign from the "private college in upstate NY" added to the total received from that school. 

Not long into the recruitment season it was obvious that neither the timing nor the messaging nor the style of these emails was integrated with the other email contacts being received. That effort could be a case study in how not to do integrated marketing communications. We'll report more about that soon.

That's all for now.

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Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" and "Link of the Week" selections at
Is it February already? If you are like me, 2013 is moving rapidly along and I trust good things are happening as your marketing plans move forward this year.

The January update in my secret shopping series on email response to an website inquiry is online now. Visit and follow the ongoing tale of the ever-changing Fast-Forward Application deadline. 14 emails are reviewed at

The Call for Papers for eduWeb2013 is open until February 15. Details at

Gerry McGovern will host a free webinar on February 7 to review results from over 1,000 web professionals on what they believe are the most important web management principles. Register at

My first conference presentations this year are at the J.Boye Web and Intranet Conference in Philadelphia in May, stating with a tutorial on building web management consensus among developers, marketers, content specialists, and managers. More on the tutorial and the entire conference at

Our 2-day conference on Writing Write for the Web is in Boston this year, May 30-31. Details will be online later this month.

And now here are your higher education marketing news and notes for February.
Endowments Flat in 2012: See Results from 833 Schools

Last year was not a good one for most higher education endowments. And that will add to the financial pressure felt by colleges and universities fighting in the tuition discount wars to maintain enrollments and academic profiles. Above the $1 billion mark are 71 schools. Just 145 schools are above the $500 million mark.

Endowment income, in other words, is not going to provide serious budget support to very many colleges and universities. Check to see how your endowment compares to those of your competitors among the 833 colleges and universities at
Responsive Design Websites: Pros and Cons

Responsive design websites can help make your web content work better as the number of people visiting on smartphones continues to increase. But responsive design is not a magic cure for whatever ails your site, particularly if your site suffers from great quantities of little-used content.

To help set realistic expectations, read "The pros and cons of responsive Web design" from Mobile Commerce Daily at
Advertising Landing Pages: CUNY Does it Right

If you spend money on advertising to bring people to a website, the landing page should repeat and reinforce the message in the ad that motivated the move to the website. Sounds simple, but too many ads still drop people on a regular website page. That is guaranteed to reduce conversion. In other words, guaranteed to waste money.

City University of New York ran a centerfold ad in the February 3 NTY Education Life supplement that does not make that mistake. Visit the landing page at where you can also download a PDF copy of the ad.
Gates Foundation Report: Major Overhaul of Financial Aid System

If people on your campus still do not think that the wind is blowing higher education toward dramatic changes, add a new report sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to their reading list.

Changes in Pell Grant duration and the amount that students and parents can borrow are just two of the areas to read about in the report from InsideHigherEd at

If you want to plunge right into the full "Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid" report at you can download a 41-page PDF at the same location.
Advertising Online: A New Opportunity from Facebook?

A new "Custom Audiences" feature from Facebook will let organizations upload their CRM database and deliver ads directly to anyone in the database with a Facebook account.

While the devil always lurks in the details, including costs and privacy, this is a promising feature that would let colleges and universities focus advertising efforts directly to people in their inquiry pool who had not yet become applicants.

The service is not operational yet. Read more about it from AdAge at
Direct Marketing Follies: The PSAT January Contact Season

How far has direct marketing advanced in higher education?

Not all that far if the deluge of email arriving these last few weeks to the son of a friend in the direct marketing business is any indication. Read his comments and my own about the 60 or so emails received from schools the son has never heard of, nearly all using very similar marketing messages, at
Recruiting Geography: How Far From Your Location?

If you are a regional public university or a private sector college with limited brand recognition far from your campus in an area where demographics do not work in your favor, you will not like results from the latest annual survey of new college freshmen from UCLA.

Simply put, most of today's freshmen are little more inclined to travel far to attend college now than in 1972 or at any time since then. Many want to stay within 50 miles of home and for many others 100 miles is the limit. Unless you have a strong brand reputation and attract more affluent students the 30 percent willing to travel over 500 miles are not likely coming to your campus.

For more on changes over time, check the chart at
Net Price Calculators: More Complex than Necessary?

Publicity for net price calculators increased when the New York Times ran a January story highlighting the challenges people face in using them: a wide variety of forms requiring different information producing different results. The impact: many people start the forms without finishing them and others do not trust the net cost received.

The article mentions in passing another major drawback: many net price calculators are hidden away where they likely will not be found. I still suspect that is the desired result at some colleges and universities. The NYT article is at

The Institute for College Access and Success reported last fall on a random study of 50 net price calculators, with questions numbering from 8 to 70. Two, at Grinnell College and Milliken University, were cited as especially easy to find. Only one, at University of Tulsa, received praise for featuring the true net price as the most visible number on the results page.

Download the Institute report at and see how your calculator compares.
Law School Applications: 20 Percent Decrease from 2012

All but a handful of law schools around the country are expecting a second year of serious application decreases. Expensive tuition combined with poor job prospects and high student debt are fueling an ongoing decline that is expected to shrink students, faculty and staff at many schools and close some.

The New York Times reports the University of Illinois law school is discounting tuition to maintain enrollment. More details in the NYT story at
Jakob Nielsen Alertbox: The Perils of Auto-Rotating Images

Jakob Nielsen is out with a new Alertbox report warning of the dangers of auto-rotating images on the home page. Nielsen recommends putting visitors in control by letting them view a single image as long as they want.

Nielsen details the negative impact of auto-rotation at
Most Popular Topic Last Month: Video Introducing New UCal Logo

Introducing a new logo is always a challenge and this video did not help. Most popular topic last month was a University of California video dismissively brushing aside the old image at
Conferences and Webinars in 2013

Look for presentation details in the February newsletter.

May 7-9, Philadelphia: "5 Top Web Management Principles: Achieving Consensus within Your Organization" and "Winning Friends at Your Website: Use Top Task Design for a Great Experience," J.Boye Web and Intranet conference. Program and registration starts at

May 30-31, Boston: "Writing Right for the Web: Improving Your Institution's Web Content," Academic Impressions Conference. Details will be online soon.

June 25, Webinar: "Recruiting Adult Students: Top Website Features to Increase Enrollment," Academic Impressions. Description and registration will be available later in February.

Also plan to attend one or more of my favorites... ACT Enrollment Planners Conference in July, and/or eduWeb Conference also in July.

Expand the marketing skills of people on your campus. Host a campus workshop on any of my conference presentation topics or "Writing Right for The Web." Scan the presentation topics at

Contact me at or call me at 248.766.6425 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 248.766.6425 FREE end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
That's All for Now

Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. (
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
January Application Deadline Drives 14 Email Recruitment Contacts 

January saw 14 emails arrive from four of our secret shopping schools... and half of those were from our "private college in upstate NY" as the quest to receive a "Fast-Forward" application continued. And that quest isn't over yet: just this morning an "Urgent Notice" email arrived with news that the next "final deadline" to send the application was February 15.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Here's a review of what has arrived since our last report on December activity. Since the "Fast-Forward" emails don't vary very much, we'll limit details except to note the ever-shifting final deadlines that our secret shopper no longer takes seriously.

14 Emails Arrive After December 14

  • January 1: The "private university in Massachusetts" is running out of new material. Today's email again features a video with current students talking about why they like this place. Good video but I've seen it before. More than once.
  • January 4: A "Fast-Forward" email from the "private college in upstate NY" reminds me of the benefits I'll receive if I apply by January 5.
  • January 4: the "private university in Massachusetts" reminds me in the subject line that "there's still time to apply" before reinforcing 5 reasons why this is the right place for me and reminding me of the January 15 deadline in the text.
  • January 8: A new email from the "most selective university" crams 8 links with news of what students are doing during the winter break into 4 paragraphs with no space between them. Maybe just a bit too much news in a hard-to-read format. And yes, a reminder of a January 15 application deadline.
  • January 8: Unlike our first email today, this one from the "private university in Rhode Island" is easy to scan quickly to see the three reasons why I should get my application to this school by the January 15 deadline.
  • January 9: January 5 has passed but those "Fast-Forward" perks from the "private college in upstate NY" are still available if I apply by the regular January 15 deadline.
  • January 13: A reminder from the "private college in upstate NY" that only 2 days are left to get the benefits from my "Fast-Forward" application.
  • January 14: the "private university in Rhode Island" is back with a reminder of the January 15 application deadline including a link to the "Class of 1017 Application Guide." 
  • January 15: The deadline is midnight tonight for the "Fast-Forward" application at the "private college in upstate NY."
  • January 16: The director of admissions at the "private college in upstate NY" has been able to get me "one extra day" to send in my "Fast-Forward" application.
  • January 22: The extra day has passed but the "private college in upstate NY" is back asking me for my "Fast-Forward" application. No deadline is mentioned in this one.
  • February 1: The new deadline to send my "Fast-Forward" application to the "private college in upstate NY" is February 15. Might this really be the last one? Anyone want to bet?
That's all in our January Report.

Two schools, the "public honors college in New York" and the "private university in Connecticut" have given up after sporadic email since the late June start of our first inquiries. Nothing arrived from either school in December or January.

And of course the pursuit of that elusive "Fast-Forward" application continued as intensely as before. Indeed, with a new February 15 deadline it seems likely that it will continue for at least another two weeks. When is enough, enough? We'll see.

Commission your own secret shopping project.

I've started a new secret shopping project for a client in the Mid-West. While I'll blog and tweet about some general observations from that work, specifics are reserved for the client.

Contact me at to arrange your own (and truly secret) secret shopping review to see how you stand vs. your competitors when someone makes an inquiry online. 

One hint based on this new venture: more schools just might reduce the number of "stealth" applicants if they would only make the inquiry form easy to find.

That's all for now.

Join me on Twitter at

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" and "Link of the Week" selections at

Bob Johnson
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