As the population of the United States shifts and changes, growing in some places and shrinking in others, the educational landscape begins to look different as well. In the midst of a playing field in such constant flux, shifts in the demographic makeup of schools, and the spending patterns of their administrators, change as well, and those of us who make our living marketing to colleges have to keep up.
The Washington Post recently reported a major impending change in higher education: A projected decline in high school graduates, and a big change in the racial and ethnic makeup of incoming first-year students.
While the demographic shift of students may not matter much when it comes to marketing to colleges — curriculums aren’t going to change overnight because the makeup of the student body shifts — the overall drop in high school graduates means schools are going to compete more vigorously for applicants.
That means larger schools in big population centers will likely continue to do well, while smaller schools will be forced to adapt to the change. With limited resources, smaller schools will consider honing their focuses in specific areas. Competing with large universities — many of which have English departments bigger than some small rural schools — is too difficult when all you have to offer is a liberal arts education. But specializing in something like environmental science or women’s studies allows a school to enshrine itself in the minds of graduating seniors.
So what does this mean in terms of marketing to colleges?
First off, the increased competition itself means you’ll probably see an increase in opportunity. High-performing schools need good materials and well-trained teachers. So if you’re selling texbooks, classroom materials and professional development courses, prepare to take advantage of the rush to stand out from the crowd.
More importantly, if you have a broad roster of small liberal arts schools on your contact list, it’ll be up to you to predict whether they’ll try to specialize — and what they’ll try to specialize in. Some schools are easy to predict. If a small school has had a strong life sciences department for years, it’s an easy bet that the board of trustees will opt to market what’s worked in the past. Other schools might be harder to predict, or have hidden gems that you might spot faster than the administration.
Try to look at your school with an eye toward marketing to colleges in the near future. Does a school seem to have an unusually high number of international students? Is there a prize-winning faculty member or an alumni who’s an up-an-comer in his or her field? Is there a student group that’s attracting a lot of attention? Any of these could be fodder for the school’s PR office. And it’s your job to help the school back up any claims they make in their literature.
Did an alum won the Nobel Prize in chemistry? Have a slew of textbook suggestions ready. Did a professor just publish a book? Have plenty of copies on hand. Did a student film make it to Sundance? What a coincidence — you just happen to have a contact at Panavision who can hook the department up with some new cameras.
As school populations shift, you’ll have to keep up, and marketing to colleges means knowing he lay of the land — not just at any minute of any day, but at any minute of any day a year from now.