2023 Trends in Higher Education Marketing

Emily Denny Jan 20, 2024 Emily Denny Content Marketing Specialist Persona The Fun and Supportive Shepherd

This is a summary of trends observed in 2023 in both the broader world of marketing and specifically in higher education. Not all of these are new trends, but all were relevant last year and will likely stay relevant in 2024. 

General Marketing Trends

There’s a lot to learn from across the marketing world, not just in the higher education industry. These industry-wide marketing trends offer us a new way of looking at problems to find creative solutions. 

Offline Approaches

As digital spaces get increasingly clustered and people’s inboxes start to overflow, offline approaches offer a way to break through the noise. More companies are adding things like physical mail as well as in-person events/meetings/experiences alongside the digital channels they use to engage with users. 

  • The numbers suggest not only do consumers have (generally) positive sentiment toward mail — good mail campaigns have ROI. (Even Google uses direct mail for B2B marketing).
  • There’s also consumer demand that online and offline have some overlap — see this data from Google regarding in-store shoppers using their phones while shopping. Online and offline experiences are usually kept separate, but there’s a growing need to integrate the two.  

Brand Awareness

A good reputation is critical, particularly for B2B companies. There’s huge value in being recognizable and top-of-mind, especially among decision-makers. 

  • 80-90% of buyers have a vendor in mind before they even start researching. Most of them will choose a vendor from this first list. Many rely on previous experience or word of mouth to generate their shortlist. 
  • This report from LinkedIn suggests hyper-targeting (delivering personalized and precise ads to specific audiences based on data) is a less effective option than category or broad targeting (delivering broader ads to broad categories of users to get more reach). 
    • Hyper-targeting has been buzzy the last few years amid the rise of content personalization. But LinkedIn suggests hyper-targeting is too reliant on often inaccurate data and does not account for market volatility.

Authenticity and “Ethical” Marketing

Consumers (especially younger consumers) are more discerning about where they spend their money. There’s more expectation than ever for companies to have clear values and for those values to align with their consumers. This is especially relevant to higher ed where an institution’s values are often central to their marketing strategy.

  • 46% of consumers say they are more likely to buy from brands that they trust (2022 data).
  • Sustainability is a big consideration for a lot of consumers who are increasingly making buying decisions based on ESG (environmental, social, governance) claims.
  • Also on the rise are concerns of “greenwashing” wherein companies use marketing claims to make consumers believe they’re more sustainable than they actually are. 

Competing with the AI Boom

Everyone is using AI, and everyone is looking for the next big thing in AI. With so many companies using AI products and services—and, in some cases, piloting AI products of their own—there’s no question the market is about to get very crowded. But there’s a gulf between how businesses want to use AI and the public perception of it. 

Privacy and the “end” of third-party cookies

This year saw more regulations regarding internet privacy in the U.S. For higher education marketers, the biggest stories were changes to how information on those under 18 could be tracked and stored. Many of the tools companies rely on to track customer/user data are under scrutiny or at risk of disappearing. 

Higher Ed Marketing Trends

Here’s a quick list of the big trends we saw in higher education marketing this year. Many of these won’t be new to anyone who spent the last year working in marketing, but they’re all worth keeping an eye on in 2024. 

  • Short-form video content (TikTok, Reels, etc.)
    • TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram are the biggest platforms on the internet and all three prioritize short-form video content. It’s by far the best place to reach college/high school-aged audiences.
    • Content created by and centering around students/the student experience remains popular.
  • Conversational tones and content marketing
  • Personalized Marketing

General Higher Education Trends

Reoccurring things seen in the news/data this year regarding Higher Education to consider in 2024. Much of these data points we’re referencing are taken from The National Student Clearinghouse report on enrollment* — a rich text to peruse regarding enrollment. 

*All the data in the NSR report is based on enrollment in Fall of 2023. Data was last updated September 28, 2023. 

See also: Higher Ed Wrapped 2023 for the biggest news stories of the year

Demographic Shifts & Non-Traditional Students (NSC Report)

  • This year saw growth in enrollment among Black, Latine, and Asian students. Enrollment among white students declined and has been declining since the start of the pandemic. 
    • Since this data is for the fall of 2023, it is reflective of admissions decisions made before SCOTUS ruled on race-conscious admissions. Enrollment of students of color will be something to pay attention to in 2024.
  • Undergraduate enrollment of students over 30 also rose slightly

Enrollment bouncing back after COVID (NSC Report)

  • This year saw the first overall growth in enrollment since the pandemic (2.1%).
    • Take this number with a grain of salt. Freshmen enrollment declined this year (-3.6%) — a reversal of gains made last year.
    • The overall rise has a lot to do with big gains for certificate and associate’s degree programs
    • Numbers still aren’t quite back to pre-pandemic levels

Closures and Consolidations

  • 20 schools closed or consolidated in 2023 — that’s a decent share of the 36 schools that closed/consolidated since the start of the pandemic.
  • There are still well over a few thousand colleges in the U.S., and most of them are not in any imminent danger of closure.
  • Most of the closures this year (and over the last few) happened to schools already struggling before a sudden global pandemic made their struggles unsustainable. 
    • A common theory: the reason we saw so many closures this year is due to the depletion of financial relief that schools had received from the government during COVID, both last year and this year.
  • Perception is powerful. Most schools are probably not in any immediate danger of closure, but the frequency of closures and the doom-laden nature of the headlines don’t exactly inspire a feeling of security. In 2024, this is an issue to approach with sensitivity and empathy — it’s every school’s worst nightmare.

Direct Admissions

  • Direct Admissions is not a new concept—it’s been around for decades (small, private schools in particular have historically made use of it). 
  • More state institutions are adopting a direct admissions model.
  • Wisconsin and Georgia both recently adopted the model for (some) of their state system schools — particularly for struggling regional schools.
  • In both states, adopting the policy is tied to workforce concerns — i.e., not enough college-educated adults to fill jobs.
  • According to Common App data, results are mixed — more applicants don’t always equal more enrollment. 
  • Amid declining enrollment, as well as diversity concerns brought on by SCOTUS’ ruling on race-conscious admissions, direct admissions is a catch-all tactic that, if it works, can help address several enrollment/diversity concerns.

Greater focus on student mental health/well-being

Micro-credentials

  • Coursera, the online open course provider, made a lot of its 2022 revenue through “micro-credentials”
    • Coursera has three main offerings: courses from accredited universities, professional certification courses (often offered by companies like Google, IBM, Meta, etc.), and graduate degree programs. Those professional certification courses (or “micro-credentials”) made up the majority of their revenue.
  • The NSC report also highlighted big increases in enrollment in certificate programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
  • 16 states no longer require a college degree for state jobs. This doesn’t necessarily mean the four-year degree is going anywhere, but it has an enticing competitor to contend with in 2024.
  • There’s no consensus on what a “micro-credential” is. The definition changes depending on how you ask. Often it refers to any number of certificate programs that are completed in less time than a semester of college. Perhaps in 2024, we’ll get it in Merriam-Webster.

These are just predictions in a notoriously unpredictable industry. We hope this summary helps you as you plan out 2024 and gives you some food for thought.

 

Does your institution need assistance navigating these trends and putting our suggestions into practice? Carnegie can help. Reach out to learn more about how we can support your marketing and enrollment efforts.

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