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From Google ads to NFL sponsorships: Colleges throw billions at marketing themselves to attract students

Catholic University freshman Jadyn Turner, who is majoring in entrepreneurship and marketing, on the campus in Washington, D.C., in early September. (Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report)
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It was the personalized emails that got Jadyn Turner to consider Catholic University when she was choosing a college.

She still has them in her phone, along with a photo of herself holding up the Catholic University banner that came in the mail. Those and other inducements lured her to an open house at the business school, where she’s now majoring in entrepreneurship.

Even though marketing played a central role in her decision, Turner was surprised to learn the university is spending $5 million on a marketing and branding campaign and hiring five new marketing employees.

“Five million dollars — that’s a lot,” said Turner, who hopes to go into nonprofit work, as she took a break from studying outside the student center. “I mean, wow.” Of higher education institutions advertising, she said: “I didn’t know that was a thing.”

In fact, the sum is small compared with what other colleges and universities are investing in advertising, marketing and promotion, a number that has been steadily rising and is on track this year to be nearly double what it was last year.

Among the reasons are a steep ongoing decline in enrollment made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and increasing competition from online education programs and others.

“Part of it is necessity, and part of it is adapting to circumstances,” said Catholic University’s blunt-spoken president, John Garvey, in his office near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with which the university shares its campus. Schools like his “are competing for students, and marketing is how you have to do that.”

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The total number of college students in the United States has declined by 2.6 million, or 13 percent, over the last decade. Another drop — 15 percent over four years — is projected, beginning in the mid-2020s, in the number of prospective college students graduating from high schools.

Before this downturn began, Garvey said, “there were more kids every year, and people had the money to pay for college. And that’s no longer true.”

The marketing and advertising boom is also a response to increasing public skepticism about the need to go to college at all, said Elizabeth Johnson, chair of the higher education marketing agency SimpsonScarborough.

“This anti-college narrative has been building, and that’s something [universities and colleges] have to market against,” Johnson said.

A Gallup poll found that the proportion of Americans who consider college to be very important fell from 70 percent in 2013 to 51 percent by 2019. And that was before the shutdowns and confusion of the pandemic, which other surveys show has further damaged public confidence.

Spending on marketing by universities and colleges is hard to track; it’s often spread across many departments, including student recruiting, athletics and fundraising.

A SimpsonScarborough survey, however, found that institutions spend between $429 and $623 per enrolled student, per year, on marketing.

As for advertising, colleges collectively spent $2 billion on it in 2018 and $2.2 billion in 2019, according to the brand consulting company Kantar. While the total declined at the peak of the pandemic, it nearly doubled in the first quarter this year compared with the same period last year, to $870 million.

Although higher education advertising historically has been dominated by for-profit providers such as the University of Phoenix, advertising spending by public and private nonprofit universities is rising, an analysis by the Educational Marketing Group found.

Among the biggest players are online giants, including the nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University, which tax documents show spent $144 million on advertising and promotion in 2019. The nonprofit Western Governors University spent $127 million that year. University of Maryland Global Campus announced in 2019 that it would spend $500 million on marketing over the following six years.

But others, including some private nonprofits that are highly selective, are also channeling tens of millions into advertising. Johns Hopkins University reported spending $29.6 million in one year; New York University, $28.5 million; University of Pennsylvania, $25.7 million; Northwestern, $25.6 million; University of Miami, $23.2 million; Columbia University, $13.2 million; Boston University, $12.7 million; Georgetown, $11.6 million; and Stanford, $10.3 million. The figures are from 2018 or 2019, whichever was the most recent tax year for which the institutions have provided documents.

A spokesman for Boston Unviersity said the money went to promote online and continuing education, fundraising and events. Columbia advertised executive education, some degree programs, fundraising, hospital services, employee recruitment and athletics, a spokesman said. A Stanford spokesman said the advertising was for continuing and executive education and new graduate degrees and certificates. The other universities did not respond when asked why and how they spent those dollars.

Kean University in New Jersey announced in September that it was becoming an “official education partner” of the New York Jets, citing the marketing advantages of the deal. A spokeswoman would not disclose details of the arrangement, but the contract — which called for the financial terms to be kept secret but was obtained by The Hechinger Report through a public-records request — shows the public university is paying the Jets $250,000 a year for three years, with the option of a two-year extension at an additional $250,000 a year.

Some student advocates say money used for advertising and marketing could instead be spent on such things as support services.

“They could probably use those resources in another way — financial aid, lowering student-to-faculty ratio, adding course sections so students didn’t wait on waitlists,” said Stephanie Hall, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank.

These advocates also raise concerns about the targets of this marketing — often wealthier students who can afford to pay at least some of their tuition, as opposed to academically promising lower-income prospects who are often of racial and ethnic minorities.

Garvey, of Catholic University, said there’s a simple and critical reason universities need to spend money on marketing. “It’s essential to the financial health of the university that we attract students to come here,” he said.

Several bills in Congress, including the 2020 College Affordability Act, have proposed requiring colleges to report what they spend on marketing and advertising or ban them from using federal money for marketing if they fall below a minimum amount of spending on instruction.

It’s a huge turnaround from a time when administrators hesitated to talk about marketing, never mind throwing around terms such as “earned media” and “brand spend” and coming up with slogan-style advertising tag lines (“A journey to excellence,” “A foundation for life,” “Be the change,” “Dream big”).

“Say the word ‘marketing,’ and you could hear faculty members gasp,” T.R. Straub, executive search and assessment consultant at Russell Reynolds, recalled of those days.

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Today, however, 56 percent of university chief marketing officers serve at their university’s executive level, and 43 percent report directly to presidents, SimpsonScarborough found. They apply research to help devise strategies, set prices and decide which programs to beef up or strip down.

It’s these senior marketers who “are seeing the conversation on social media, and they’re understanding the user analytics and what’s happening on your website or in your digital communications,” said Angela Polec, vice president of enrollment, marketing and communications at La Salle University (“Explorers are never lost”).

A small but growing number of chief marketing officers in higher education — 14 percent, according to a Russell Reynolds survey — come from the private sector. These include Dan Dillon, a former chief marketing officer at Outback Steakhouse, who took the role at Arizona State University (“Innovation drives us forward”). R. Ethan Braden, chief marketer at Purdue University (“Persistent innovation. Together”), previously was a marketing director at the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

Chief marketing officers earn as much as $375,000 a year, depending on the size of the institution, and oversee an average of nine to 24 employees, SimpsonScarborough says. The American Marketing Association’s annual higher education symposium has grown from 300 participants 10 years ago to nearly 1,500 in 2019, though last year’s conference was online and this year’s attendance is limited by the coronavirus.

“In five, 10, 15 years, higher education marketing will look like it looks at GE,” said Bill Faust, senior partner and chief strategy officer of the marketing firm Ologie, whose higher education clients include Stanford, Penn, Smith College, Rutgers University and Carnegie Mellon University.

Braden, of Purdue, has 65 people serving under him, he said, including 13 hired during the pandemic, and he estimated that the university has an additional 250 employees on its main campus in marketing or communications roles.

“Generally speaking, you’re seeing a maturation of marketing and, particularly, brand management in higher ed,” Braden said.

Karna Lozoya, Catholic University’s vice president for university communications, went to a higher education marketing conference to learn about what other colleges were doing.

Instead, she said, “what I realized was that marketing was new to the landscape. A lot of these institutions are more than 100 years old, and they still hadn’t figured out how to do communications.”

The world has changed, Lozoya said.

“We’re in a different era right now,” she said. “We have to really reach out to students and make our case.”

This story about higher education marketing was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

The Catholic University campus in Washington, D.C.