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2019 AMA Symposium for Higher Education: Key Takeaways

2019 AMA Symposium for Higher Education: Key Takeaways

By Dr. Adrienne King
The University of Toledo

Celebrating 30 years, the 2019 American Marketing Association’s (AMA) Symposium of Higher Education included record attendance with nearly 1,500 higher education marketers in attendance. The annual conference covered a variety of topics including reputation campaigns, changing student demographics, free speech on campus, and not surprisingly, this year’s varsity blues scandal.

Selling Higher Ed

Undoubtedly one of the most relevant presentations, “Selling Higher Education,” with Brandon Busteed president of Kaplan University Partners, outlined the dramatic difference between the cost of attendance and the median earnings of bachelor’s degree holders. Since 1990, average tuition and fee costs in the United States have increased nearly 400% –– more than double that of healthcare costs. Median earnings for college graduates, however, have remained relatively flat.

Despite this rigid dichotomy, the majority of Americans still believe a college education is a worthy investment. And the number one reason? “To get a good job.” A pretty reasonable expectation, yet most institutions still struggle to embrace the terminology and mindset of our “customers”. Busteed suggests that in the next decade the expectations of students, parents and employers will be the driving force behind industry changes within academia rather than accreditors. As you can imagine, this point created a stir of whispers among the audience as we all contemplated this suggested possibility.

One interesting takeaway from Busteed’s presentation was the idea of a “credadegree” — an invented term describing a recommended new norm for higher education that pairs a degree with an industry credential.

Value Proposition

The importance of an institution’s value proposition has never been greater. We’ve all known that student demographics are changing, but projections now indicate that the college-going population will drop by as much as 15% by 2025. Now, more than ever, marketers must step up as leaders on their campuses to help define the value of a college degree…our college’s degrees. This is an unprecedented opportunity.

Brand differentiation and value-added educational experiences will be the defining factors for our institutions. The key difference between higher education and other industries is, and always has been, that our students are engaging in a lifetime contract of brand loyalty.

Other key features of higher education’s value proposition include:

  • Relationship-rich experiences: Do your graduates feel like their faculty knew their name and helped them reach their own personal goals?
  • Work-integrated experience: What kind of practical, experiential-learning opportunities do your students receive?
  • The price tag matters. The value of a lower-priced degree is very real. Does your institution provide accessible and affordable education?

We must not only help our institutions define these factors, but develop strong brands built on personal and compelling stories that illustrate student success. And we must communicate them to a much broader audience –– students, parents, businesses, media, government officials, and the list goes on and on…

Chief Strategy Officer

As marketers, our role has evolved in recent years from merely promotion to strategic leadership. In fact, 48% of chief marketing officers (CMOs) now report directly to their president/chancellor, and 56% sit on cabinet.

What we know, Higher ed

As our role moves from promotion to positioning, we are becoming increasingly responsible for all of areas of the marketing mix:

  • Promotion (brand, recruitment, reputation)
  • Product (student experience, retention, academic program/curriculum evaluation
  • Pricing strategy (market elasticity)
  • Placement (market demands)

It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, marketing strategy is institutional strategy. Market research should inform institutional strategy. This paradigm shift requires CMOs with strong strategic backgrounds in market research and brand management. Brand is, after all, far more than simply a messaging strategy. As Terry Flannery, author and former VP of communications for American University, explained, “This is no time for amateurs.”

Flannery offered a refreshing perspective for the future of higher education. She suggests that our leadership role –– and responsibility –– goes far beyond communicating institutional decisions, it’s to help guide and make them. “We have the greatest value when we are intimately involved in the strategic discussions.”

As our industry evolves, we must step up as leaders to help our institutions thrive. So, buckle up. The future of higher education is about to get very exciting!