Five Questions Smart Enrollment Marketers Are Asking Today
These days, there’s no better signal for a looming crisis than big opinions spouted with little accountability. Sadly, higher ed is no different. Higher ed is facing a significant enrollment cliff that data (and almost every higher ed headline) tells us will hit in 2025.
Accelerated by Covid and impacted by ongoing cultural shifts, it’s clear that there is an impending enrollment cliff–what’s less clear is what to do about it. We could listen to those “crisis sirens” who lure us with their passion and finger pointing–looking back and blaming someone else is far more fun than keeping your eyes on the horizon and charting the path forward. Or we could close our ears to their siren song and tune into the quieter voices in the room—the ones less focused on “how did we get here?” and more focused on “where do we go from here?” These voices typically aren’t leading with opinions; they’re leading with questions.
I have the unique privilege of a front row seat to some of this quiet wisdom. I lead a marketing and advertising agency that specializes in higher ed and works with incredibly talented enrollment marketers across a range of leading institutions. No one wants to sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about. But in times of disruption where the old playbook no longer applies, people who are brave enough to ask simple, foundational questions are often the ones who most successfully chart the new path forward. I get to hear these diverse voices weigh in on the myriad of challenges facing higher ed today, and yet there are some common questions that I’ve observed these leaders quietly asking of themselves and their teams:
1. Who are our students today?
What it means to be a “student” or a “learner” today looks very different than it did three, five, fifteen years ago. And for those of us who are responsible for driving enrollment, it may not feel confidence-inducing to ask a room of our team, our peers, our bosses, “Who is a student today? Who is it that we’re really talking to?” But not only is it a question worth asking, it’s also worth interrogating any data you’re presented in response to this question. I’ve sat in rooms where credible data partners present “higher ed” data that is actually not representative of the students or offerings the room is responsible for. “How old is this data? Is it representative of the students I serve today? Is it representative of the products I offer?”
2. Do we have the right product?
If students or learners are different today than they were a decade ago, have our products evolved too? On one hand, we’ve seen an explosion in online course offerings and the adoption of asynchronous learning–significant changes that mean our products are more accessible. But these changes feel like table stakes at this point. How can we go further–not just by chasing a trend but by better understanding our students’ pain points, their values, and the impact that we want them to have on our institution?
One of my favorite examples of “going further” is NYU Tandon’s Bridge Program which was conceived to encourage people who do not have a traditional STEM background to apply to STEM graduate programs. It’s 100% online and asynchronous (again, table stakes), but any student who successfully completes the program earns a certificate and is entitled to a waiver of the master’s application fee and GRE requirements at NYU Tandon and a handful of other engineering schools. It’s a great example of a win/win opportunity that supports students’ goals (streamlining the application process) and the institution’s goals (recruiting talented students who may not have a traditional engineering background, but who represent what it means to be a modern engineer).
3. How do I increase confidence in my owned data?
This question could read, “Am I confident in my owned data?” But anyone today who says they are confident in their owned data today is lying. With the transition from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 this year, lots of people are throwing their hands up in the air (And I get it!) But now is a critical moment to understand the health of your data. This doesn’t mean you need to “fix everything” tomorrow. In fact, think about data hygiene just like you think about personal hygiene. Good hygiene comes from small, consistent, daily actions–the equivalent of brushing your teeth. These actions have compounding value–small effort today will pay off significantly over time.
4. What is my institution’s AI strategy?
When we talk about AI, it’s easy to think only about generative AI and to tell ourselves that this is a challenge for the classroom and for faculty–not a pressing issue for the enrollment landscape. But whether we realize it or not, we’re all using AI today. We’re using it at home when we binge the show Netflix recommends to us, and at work when we run advertising on any of the primary social channels. So if you think you have time to ruminate on this, you don’t.
5. Am I building trust with stakeholders and colleagues outside of my department and team?
Now is not the time to lord over our territories. Now is the time to reach out to colleagues on different teams–maybe even at other institutions!–to learn what they’re doing, identify shared challenges or opportunities for collaboration, and offer help and collaboration without any presumed return. The looming enrollment crisis is not unique to any institution; it’s shared amongst the entire system. Now is the time to come together, not to retreat into our ivory towers.
With so much going on in the world of higher ed today, my intent is not to add to the noise. My aim is to encourage those of you who are in the trenches of this work. Navigating change and disruption is not easy. It requires bravery, vulnerability, and perseverance. For those of you who are reading, my hope is that you relieve yourself of the pressure of delivering the answers and focus more on framing the questions that will help surface the answers.
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