Because you’re worth it: how universities can prove their value to prospective students

Steps universities can take to show their worth to prospective students amid rising costs and competition from alternative further education providers

Malik Johnson's avatar
Johns Hopkins University
11 Aug 2023
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Rising costs and concerns over heavy student debt cast doubt on whether an expensive university education is worth it for some students. Most high-school pupils in the United States still enrol in a higher education institution upon graduation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). But the percentage has dropped from 68 per cent in 2010 to 62 per cent in 2021, the data shows.

There are a number of reasons that students may choose a community college or certificate programmes. Decisions may be based on greater flexibility, lower costs, easier transition into the workforce and more. Universities need to up their game when it comes to proving their value to a new generation – here are some ideas that could help them do this:

1. Increase social media presence

Institutions should embrace social media platforms such as TikTok, Snapchat or Instagram to extend their reach. The content could be as simple as an informal and friendly welcome message from the senior team, or a short video showing off the campus. The school marketing team could use student interviews or student tours. Instagram reel or Tiktok videos can give insights into campus life, the different majors available and fun things about the local area. Videos can be produced with the help of current students, particularly those studying marketing or communications. The assignment would give students real-world professional experience. The appeal of a university is not just about academic credentials, it is about the whole experience.

2. Tailor messaging to meet student needs

Different generations of students face different obstacles to learning. Challenges faced by today’s students include poor mental health, financial insecurity, caring responsibilities and family expectations that they do well. Universities should highlight the services and support they provide which can help students navigate or overcome these challenges such as the use of asynchronous classes to help those who need to work flexible hours, student health services and assistance programmes.

These might include peer support and mentor groups to help students adjust to university life, therapy and well-being sessions, food donation pantries or provision of personal hygiene products, or clothes that students can wear to interviews.

3. Active outreach to attract diverse students

There needs to be a stronger focus on engaging non-traditional students or those from varied socio-economic backgrounds. Most admissions counsellors have designated territories so rather than relying on big university and careers fairs, these counsellors should visit high schools individually to speak to students about their institution. This would engage harder to reach prospective students and enable them to ask questions about the majors, services, campus and possible career prospects on graduation.

4. Advertise resources that support student success

Universities should actively promote the resources they offer to support student success such as tutoring, academic advisers, writing assistance, help composing résumés or CVs or special accommodations for those with learning difficulties or disabilities. It will help some applicants to know that if their grades do start to suffer, they can access additional help. If the school offers night classes, it is worth keeping these support services open for later hours, if necessary, staffed with student assistants. These resources and support services should be highlighted in university brochures and other communications.

5. Spotlight the most-popular majors

When I was first interested in going to university, I researched institutions that had great psychology courses in line with my hopes of being a counsellor or forensic psychologist. Many prospective students do not yet have clear career aspirations and thus will not carry out such targeted research. Universities can help provide direction by listing their most popular majors (business, humanities, health sciences or engineering) and supplying summaries of how these align to future careers.

I changed my major after starting university, but I still employ psychology concepts in my work with students.

6. Promote college pathways

The fact that many prospective students are seeking more affordable ways to get an education creates an opportunity for universities to extend their reach. Larger institutions can partner with community colleges to open pathways for those who wish to seek a four-year degree. They should clearly advertise the availability of community college transfer partnerships and tuition discounts. It may help students to know that they would not have to pay full price if they are transferring to the university with an associate degree.

Ideas about higher education are evolving, and individual universities must fight to stay relevant and maintain their status. Long-established institutions should remember that “prestige” can be a deterrent for some students who may judge the university as out of their league. These students will require a different marketing approach to that directed at legacy students.

Malik Johnson is a senior academic programme coordinator at Johns Hopkins University.

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