Navigating the Future: 5 Higher Ed Marketing Trends to Watch in 2024

Navigating the Future: 5 Higher Ed Marketing Trends to Watch in 2024

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Higher education is facing a looming enrollment and revenue cliff. Between 2007 and 2022, the national birth rate declined by almost 23 percent. This decline will result in a dramatic decrease in the number of high school seniors entering college from 2025 to 2037.¹

But the coming enrollment and revenue cliff isn’t just demographic; it’s also behavioral. Students are questioning the ROI of pursuing traditional higher education, and many are looking to lower cost or skills-focused community college programs in lieu of traditional 4-year degrees. For three consecutive years, fall enrollment has been up for certificate programs, with community colleges also seeing enrollment gains.² The FAFSA debacle will exacerbate the behavioral factors impacting student choices for fall 2024 and could have even more enrollment implications.³ Additionally, for the past 3 years, completion rates have been stagnant across higher education.⁴ This stagnation combined with lower enrollments puts colleges and universities at severe risk for revenue decline.

What does all of this tell us? Students are increasingly in short supply. But they’re also more discerning, sophisticated and selective in their higher education decision-making. In order to enroll and retain students in 2024 and beyond, colleges and universities need to understand how prospects are shopping for programs and the trends that are driving higher education marketing today. The 5 key higher education marketers and leaders should be aware of are:

  1. Higher education prospects are behaving more like consumers.
  2. Prospective students are searching for degrees, not specific universities.
  3. Online education is empowering regional schools to compete on a national stage.
  4. Full-funnel data integration has become critical for effective enrollment marketing.
  5. Schools are upgrading their digital marketing to attract the best students.

Below, we dive into these trends and how to navigate them.

1. Customer Centricity: Higher Ed Prospects are Behaving More Like Consumers

This is the most significant trend higher education leaders should understand. Students are sophisticated, informed consumers who are shopping for degrees rather than aspiring to attend specific universities. As such, they expect the same level of sophistication, personalization and engagement from colleges and universities that they’re accustomed to in their other search and buying experiences.

In recent years, there has been an attitudinal shift from “I hope X university accepts me” to “Let me determine if X university is right for me.” Students are comparison shopping, with educational investment ROI and flexibility factoring heavily into their evaluation.

  • Return on Investment: Will the degree yield enough income to justify the educational investment?
  • Flexibility: Do the degree requirements and program format/modality suit my lifestyle and responsibilities?
  • Relevance: Does the program offer the courses I want/need to reach my goals?

Higher education marketers must adjust their strategies to reach the consideration set of right-fit prospective students and adjust their messaging to appeal to these prospects’ wants and needs. This requires understanding prospects’ wants and needs in order to implement customer-centric personalization. To succeed in today’s enrollment marketing environment, schools need to shift their communication strategy from “How can you contribute to our prestige?” to “This is how we can contribute to your success.”

Students are sophisticated, informed consumers who are shopping for degrees rather than aspiring to attend specific universities. As such, they expect the same level of sophistication, personalization and engagement from colleges and universities that they’re accustomed to in their other search and buying experiences.
Mike Bell.jpg
Michael Bell, Chief Marketing Officer Everspring

2. Branded vs. Non-Branded Search: What the Google Trends Reveal

A recent report revealed that non-branded searches have overtaken branded searches in higher education for the first time. This means there are more searches for generic keywords such as “MBA,” “online nursing degree,” and “law school JD” than there are for search terms that include school names such as “Ohio State MBA” or “University of MD engineering,” etc. This is correlated with the previous trend—if students are behaving as consumers shopping for degrees, it follows that they would be searching for specific degrees and degree attributes/differentiators.

This shift is important because achieving top rankings for individual programs requires more strategy than achieving top rankings for branded terms. SEM (paid search) and SEO (organic search) for higher education are uber-competitive when targeting non-branded terms. SEM clicks for non-branded terms are much more expensive than they are for branded terms, and SEO requires sending a multitude of strategic signals to Google to achieve strong rankings.

Universities looking to boost their non-branded rankings can start by optimizing their program websites, content, and messaging. Those without experienced in-house SEO professionals or support from a higher education marketing agency will find it challenging to earn clicks from Google in the new higher ed search paradigm.

3. Breaking Geographic Boundaries: School Location Matters Less

The demand for online and hybrid higher education has nationalized the competitive landscape for universities that previously would not consider investing significant marketing dollars to target prospective students outside their region. Traditionally, for the approximately 650 regional universities in the U.S., name recognition and brand awareness have been minimal outside of their area. However, the rise of non-branded search and prospective students’ focus on outcomes are clear indicators that once little-known universities—especially if they have robust online offerings—can compete nationally or even globally.

To effectively compete on a national level, regional universities must:

  • Offer fully online modalities.
  • Research the competitive landscape and establish their marketing position.
  • Implement digital marketing strategies with a customer-centric approach.
  • Optimize their enrollment funnels to drive marketing ROI.

4. Connected Data: Staying Ahead of the Curve with Full-Funnel Data Integration

The typical enrollment journey involves dozens, if not hundreds, of touchpoints. These touchpoints not only consist of digital interactions across diverse platforms and devices (marketing channels, emails, chatbots) but often include phone calls and in-person conversations. When the data from these interactions is well-connected through a CRM, higher education marketers can create personalized campaigns that increase engagement with prospective students through their preferred channels across their decision-making journey.

Connected data is equally important in both the prospect-to-lead and lead-to-enrollment portions of the journey. While many schools effectively implement connected data into their digital marketing lead generation strategies, once they generate the lead, they do not continue to leverage data strategically. Instead, they rely on admissions advisors to drive the enrollment journey.

As schools grapple with market headwinds (a smaller pool of high school and graduate students to recruit, student perception of degree value, and stagnant completion rates), they need to ensure their marketing dollars not only deliver on marketing metrics, but ultimately enroll students who will retain in their programs. Combining a digital marketing strategy with a data-centric approach across the funnel—including as advisors work to enroll interested students—is both challenging and essential. This is where working with a higher education marketing agency can be crucial. For example, Everspring’s 10+ years of proprietary first-party data, including behavioral data across programs and established benchmarks, equip colleges and universities to not just generate leads, but enroll more students.

5. Digital Marketing: Deploying Cutting-Edge Tactics to Find the Right Students

In higher education, leads alone don’t guarantee enrollments. Effective higher education marketing goes beyond lead generation to focus on qualified leads—prospects with a realistic opportunity to become enrolled students (and, thereafter, to retain in their programs and graduate). Schools are realizing that sustained enrollment growth starts with informed, targeted lead generation to reach the right prospects. This requires advanced digital marketing expertise to analyze campaign metrics and optimize for better results. For example, changing an enrollment marketing campaign’s principal metric from cost-per-lead (CPL) to cost-per-opportunity (CPO) is a game-changing adjustment that enables more effective targeting and drives higher ROI. Optimizing to CPO requires using connected data (via your CRM or obtained from a third party) to determine which leads are highly likely to convert into enrolled students.

Schools are increasingly building their digital marketing infrastructure and capabilities, either internally or with the help of a higher education marketing agency, to ensure they can compete in today’s market and capture prospective students’ attention.

Adapting in 2024 and Beyond

As higher education shifts and evolves, higher education marketing is being reshaped by consumer behavior and technology. The trends highlighted above underline the urgent need for universities to adapt their strategies to remain competitive and relevant. Institutions that are willing to embrace change, innovate their approaches, and deliver greater value to students are the ones that will not only survive, but thrive in the coming years.

Everspring helps colleges and universities navigate enrollment challenges and implement high-performing digital marketing. Learn how we can help you level up in 2024.

1. The Hill, College Enrollment Could Take a Big Hit in 2025
2. Inside Higher Ed, Enrollments Rise After Pandemic-Related Declines
3. Inside Higher Ed, ‘Running Out of Road’ for FAFSA Completion
4. Forbes, Latest College Completion Rate Remains Flat At 62%