In the US, higher education institutions are ramping up efforts to convey their value in a progressively competitive marketplace. It's happening for many reasons, including a persistent party school perception, a reputation-shattering crisis, or disjointed outreach among programs.
Motives may differ, but the reality schools face is the same: Fewer students are going to college. This is especially true for four-year, for-profit institutions, which experienced a 7.2% decrease in enrollment between fall 2011 and 2012, according to National Student Clearinghouse. The trend continued this past spring, with an 8.7% drop in students compared to the same period last year.
"Higher education is under siege," says Judy Brennan, EVP at Ogilvy's Chicago corporate practice. "Given the job-skills gap, more people are questioning the value of a four-year education, asking, ‘How are we going to get a job out of it?'"
Data shows students with a bachelor's degree are better off financially than those with just a high school diploma. Post recession, 47% of high school graduates were employed versus 65% of graduates with a bachelor's degree, according to findings from the Pew Charitable Trust in January.
This disconnect about the value of education has caused universities to look inward at how to convey that they have attractive offerings to future employers and understand why students choose rival universities.
North Carolina State University is in the early stages of a brand overhaul and outreach effort. It is coming to the end of a research phase and plans to present initial findings and strategies to officials this fall.
"We're a highly decentralized university. The way communications has grown up here has been very unit or product focused," says Brad Bohlander, associate vice chancellor and CCO at the institution. "As a result, there's a lack of understanding of what we're really good at."
American University launched the American Wonk campaign in 2010 to elevate its reputation and differentiate itself from other institutions. Members on the board also wanted a unified communications strategy conveying its strengths following a leadership crisis in 2005. That year, president Benjamin Ladner was let go after allegations of misuse of university funds for personal expenses.
It also came down to a perceived uncertainty on what made the school a superior choice over competitors. "There was a feeling the university didn't have the recognition that others of the same age and size had," says Terry Flannery, VP of communication at American University.
The campaign's strategy involved events and media outreach leading to coverage in The Washington Post and on Meet the Press. The university sent out teams of students to spread the word about the effort via a grassroots approach.
Some rebranding efforts can be harmful if research doesn't support the initiative. For instance, last year the University of California had to scrap use of a new logo following an outcry from key stakeholders.
"You don't want to cut off a piece of the past that alumni and stakeholders identify with," says Michael Stopford, EVP and global corporate strategist for Weber Shandwick.
Schools also shouldn't put a lot of emphasis on paid media when launching new branding efforts, says Mike Armini, SVP, external affairs at Northeastern University. "Media relations are the best way to move the needle," he says.
The university recorded a series of ads called All the Wonks Are Talking, in which students, staff, and alumni were used to recreate poster ads that come to life as each expressed the value of the AU brand. The ads appeared on news programs and social media.
Three years later, data shows there is a greater awareness of the school and its specific benefits. The amount of students choosing the school as their first choice has increased 10% from five years ago, Flannery says.
Southern Illinois University Carbondale launched a rebranding effort in 2011 after years of enrollment decline. Research showed perspective students and parents viewed the school as a party school weak on academics.
Among other things, the campaign emphasized that the school was a top-tier research university. The strategy paid off as the university saw a 5% increase in its freshmen class from 2011.
Getting the word out about the strength of its academics wasn't only about attracting more students, but also getting people who were the best fit for the school.
Attracting the right students has become increasingly important for schools as more families are not only evaluating academic and campus life offerings, but transfer and dropout rates also.
"This is a significant investment," says Margaret Dunning, principal at Widmeyer and head of its Washington, DC, office. "If they're going to put those kinds of dollars in, students need to know they will finish."