Increasing competition. Shrinking prospective student populations. Challenging enrollment trends. Welcome to higher education marketing.
When I came to Chatham University in 2012, it was a 143-year-old institution made up of an all-women's undergraduate college and a nearly 20-year-old coeducational graduate and professional studies program. The coed graduate programs enrolled almost 60 percent of the 2,100-student population, while enrollment for the undergraduate women's college was continually declining. The university had financially subsidized the women's college for years, but if enrollment patterns did not turn around, the institution would soon face an unsustainable multimillion-dollar issue. Chatham was at a crossroads.
What was happening at Chatham was a textbook example of the turmoil embroiling higher education. In 2013, Moody's Investor Service downgraded the entire U.S. higher education sector, stating that it "has hit a critical juncture in the evolution of its business model. Even market-leading universities with diversified revenue streams are facing diminished prospects for revenue through this period of intensified change and challenge." In 2014, Standard & Poor's noted that higher education "faces mounting challenges on multiple fronts, including heightened scrutiny regarding affordability and the corresponding shift in demand. We expect the next few years to be particularly difficult for law schools, single-sex institutions, and small regional religious institutions." In 2015, Moody's outlook continued to be negative due to weak revenue growth, climbing expenses, and price sensitivity.
Some members of Chatham's leadership team use the polite term "headwinds" to describe the challenges facing our university and higher education. If you're in my position, you're more likely to think of them as whirlwinds.
But these forces of change are what brought me to Chatham. During the Great Recession, I became fascinated with marketing in fields experiencing disruption. I left my position as a vice president and brand strategy director at an agency to work for a university—in a higher education marketplace that has become profoundly destabilized. Crazy? No. Savvy marketing professionals should view obstacles as opportunities. They offer the potential to move in different directions as well as the prospect of leading an important conversation about marketing's place in higher education and its effect on the future viability of our institutions.
When I joined Chatham as vice president of marketing and communications, marketing was not a central part of business strategy, new program development, or other important areas such as pricing methods. In higher education, these critical areas are primarily driven by academics and finance, but they need—and benefit from—the insights that strategic marketing brings. For Chatham's long-term marketing efforts to be effective, marketing professionals needed to be a part of these conversations.
Marketing and communications offices are frequently viewed through a tactical lens, as places that churn out brochures, websites, or ad campaigns once a strategic decision has been made elsewhere—too often without data and market research. I looked for chances to change this perspective. In my second year at Chatham, an underperforming signature graduate program in the School of Sustainability created such an opportunity. We conducted an extensive enrollment and pricing analysis that recommended adjusting the price to make the program more competitive in the market. It worked. Enrollment increased, our marketing efforts earned a greater return on investment, and my team demonstrated the important role marketing can play in making strategic business decisions.
Then, in 2013 the Board of Trustees initiated a review of Chatham's three colleges, beginning with the undergraduate women's college that established the institution in 1869. This was a chance for marketing to contribute to Chatham's future direction and illustrate the strategic value of our unit's work.
My team examined the trends affecting enrollment at Chatham, including the changing state of the women's college as well as past investments in marketing and admissions efforts, shifting consumer perceptions, student demographics, and market research. The resulting report suggested that switching to a coed undergraduate program was a viable and potentially necessary path. After evaluating the report's data and recommendations, in February 2014 the Board of Trustees voted to explore the feasibility of undergraduate coeducation at Chatham while also gathering community feedback through town halls, meetings, and written and electronic communications over the next 90 days. In May 2014, the trustees decided to reorganize the university's academic units and make Chatham entirely coeducational. The decision was unsurprising to some constituents but upsetting to others, including a group of alumnae who protested.
The choice for Chatham was difficult but clear. For me, it confirmed that higher education marketers must take every opportunity to show that their approach, data, and insights add value to important discussions and decisions. It's the greatest way to change the institutional role and perception of marketing and to help these efforts succeed. Don't shy away from the challenge. And don't wait to be asked for your input. Such an invitation may arrive too late—or never at all.
Show your work
After the Board of Trustees vote in May 2014, my marketing team needed to quickly develop a new campaign. The goal: To increase undergraduate enrollment of women and men and reposition Chatham within the short but crucial marketing and recruitment season already under way. We had 10 months from the decision to the undergraduate application deadline to reintroduce the university to students, families, and high schools in the region and bring in the institution's first coed class for fall 2015.
Our nascent effort benefited from the perspective I gained while also serving as Chatham's interim vice president of enrollment management from June 2012 to November 2013, a role the president asked me to undertake to better align the university's marketing and admissions efforts. In a world increasingly driven by digital communications, ensuring that marketing and admissions work collaboratively is critical. This was the best on-the-job training I could ask for during my first year working in higher education. I gained an understanding of the long hours, travel, and constant effort the admission team puts in to recruit students. Admissions officers are higher education's salespeople. Being privy to the conversations they were having—or not having because of prospects' preconceived notions about women's colleges or their determination not to consider one—was eye-opening.
Our research suggested that continuity in the face of change was important to some Chatham constituents, but that wasn't true for prospective students, who were less concerned with tradition and more excited about their future college experiences. Data from past enrollment efforts by women's colleges that had gone coed suggested that overemphasizing the coeducational aspect or trying to appeal more to men could backfire. Our messages had to resonate with men and women and highlight that they would be entering into this new coed environment together. The university's 20-year history enrolling male graduate students bolstered our case.
We focused on prospective students' unique opportunity to be pioneers in Chatham's first coed undergraduate class. This strategy positioned a 145-year-old university as a fresh institution and a new choice in the coed market. Our seven-person team created campaign messages and materials that invited prospective students to "Be First."
First look, first in line, first experience, and first impressions were key messages in marketing efforts that included radio and digital advertising, email, direct mail, two microsites, and materials for recruiting athletes to compete in the six men's sports that would join our athletics department. This campaign material complemented the work of our enrollment management team members as they visited high schools and attended college fairs. Our target audience even started using the language.
"I think there's something exciting in being first," an incoming male student told the Pittsburgh Business Times in August 2015. "We have an opportunity to really contribute to something and help shape the future of the university."
The campaign's results exceeded our expectations. Inquiries increased by 50 percent, and campus visits went up 91 percent. Applications rose 153 percent with 1,715 applications, compared to 691 the previous year. Enrollment deposits went from 145 in May 2014 to more than 300 in May 2015. Most important, fall 2015 saw 277 first-time, first-year students, compared with 159 in fall 2014. Aside from being the largest incoming freshman class in 15 years, 26 percent of the students were men, surpassing our 20 percent recruitment goal. We also experienced gains among women. It's rewarding to see that the metrics have moved in the right direction and that our creative execution and strategy influenced the target audience.
From a revenue perspective, the enrollment increase created an additional $2.5 million of tuition revenue in a single year. At press time, applications from the 2016-17 class were nearly 20 percent above 2015's pace. In the next five years, this type of growth will be essential to Chatham's financial strength and overall stability.
My team is mindful of the challenges and opportunities of forging a new story for Chatham while preserving its history and historical mission as a women's college. As we rebrand the university in this coeducational context, the institution is linking past, present, and future—from the establishment of a new Women's Institute to Chatham's new color palette. Purple has always represented the undergraduate women's college, even after the institution became a university in 2007 and changed its principal color to green. In 2015, purple again became Chatham's primary color, with shades of green and gray as secondary colors. Our "long purple line from 1869" will connect the institution's past to the men and women who will move the university forward.
The big questions for marketers
Marketing's recommendation to switch to a coeducational undergraduate program was the right choice for reversing Chatham's decline in undergraduate enrollment. But strategic changes like this are just the beginning for higher education marketers. To continue to adapt and stay competitive, marketers must examine areas of their institution that need new approaches to doing business.
"The entire industry has to find ways to do things differently," Chatham President Esther Barazzone said in a 2014 interview with the university's alumni magazine. "That's an even bigger challenge than the one we faced with the coeducational decision, significant as that is. If you don't do business differently today, you're not going to have a business."
That last statement drives the big questions facing higher education marketing professionals: How do we determine and define the changes our institutions require? How do we lead our institutions to adapt to today's dynamic and competitive marketplace?
College affordability, for example, is a top concern for students and their families. Yet many people base one of their life's most important financial decisions on inadequate or limited information—both in terms of expected student aid and debt load after graduation. Higher education marketing professionals should be leading this conversation. We can help demystify the financial aid process and be transparent about value, cost, tuition pricing and discounting, and return on investment.
At Chatham, we have started to tackle this issue by revamping our messaging. We recognize the need to simplify the financial aid process; clarify the difference between the tuition price, what students pay for, and what a Chatham education actually costs; and make the case for the cumulative college experience, in addition to the value of a degree and alumni employment statistics. Our goal? To have a straightforward conversation with students and families about the cost and return on investment of a Chatham education. By rushing to make alumni employment statistics our industry's answer to the value and affordability question, marketers are missing a huge opportunity to better address the complexities of this debate.
Whatever issue you choose to tackle at your institution, bringing marketing-driven change to our business challenges requires us to think differently—and to convince our colleagues to think differently about what we do. The disruption in higher education today is forcing many colleges and universities to pursue fresh approaches.
Those of us who report to presidents or chancellors must lead this charge, but it's incumbent upon all marketers to build trust with colleagues, demonstrate data-driven results, and communicate why marketing matters. But please don't make the mistake of beginning with a swing-for-the-fences transformative change or campaign. Start small. Find a program or project to experiment with. Learn all you can about it. Try something new, then test it, and report on your results. This strategy will allow you to show on a small scale the kind of change you can bring on a larger scale. I know from experience that this approach helps build teams, consensus, and momentum that can increase marketing's influence in ways that benefit your institution.
About the author(s)
Bill Campbell is the vice president of marketing and communications at Chatham University. He provides strategic leadership over the university's branding, marketing and communications activities in support of enrollment, fundraising, alumni engagement and more. Joining Chatham in 2012, he has helped lead the successful coed transition of Chatham's 145-year-old undergraduate women's college, and also served as the vice president of enrollment management until 2013.
Campbell's efforts at Chatham were recognized in 2015 with his selection as the American Marketing Association's Higher Education Marketer of the Year (Innovator Award). He has also earned a Top 40 Under 40 Leadership Award and presented at a number of conferences around the country.
Prior to Chatham, he worked for more than a decade at Clean, a brand agency located in North Carolina, in a variety of positions, culminating in his role as the vice president of brand strategy. In this role, he led the development of branding and marketing engagements for clients across a variety of sectors, including higher education, technology, nonprofit, travel and tourism, and consumer goods. He began his career in the nonprofit sector as the director of annual giving and operations for the V Foundation for Cancer Research.