US uses ads to sell academe

July 21, 2006

Marketing is no longer a dirty word in American universities, says Jon Marcus, as institutions launch major campaigns to target potential 'customers' via TV and billboards

US universities are turning to direct advertising to head off a projected decline in the supply of students by 2009.

They have embarked on a new wave of marketing. And the initiative is no longer restricted to universities that might have enrolment problems, but is being extended to institutions that once looked down their noses at promoting themselves in this way.

Boston's Northeastern University pioneered the trend. Its billboard poster, placed between adverts pushing beer and life insurance inside the baseball stadium that is home to the city's Red Sox, was lifted unashamedly from consumer products advertising.

"I've seen 'marketing' change from a dirty word to a buzzword," said Michael Norris, chair of the marketing committee at Centre College in Kentucky, whose small size - 700 students when Mr Norris started there - belies its reputation as a higher education marketing pioneer.

"Universities large and small now have marketing teams, marketing plans and growing budgets for paid advertising."

Four-year private universities spend $2,073 (£1,1) to recruit a single student, according to consultants Noel-Levitz. They recognise that prospective students have been marketed to since birth, and that their parents are more likely to have gone to college and understand that they can shop for the best deal.

"Marketing on American campuses has gone from being an auxiliary function - nearly a suspect activity - to one that receives the full endorsement of campus leadership," said Robert Moore, president of Noel-Levitz.

Now academe as a whole is getting in on the act, with national advertising planned by the American Council on Education on behalf of its 1,800 member colleges and universities.

The $4.5 million campaign consists of humorous television commercials meant to show what the world might be like without university graduates - that doctors at a hospital might advocate blood-letting, for example.

Marketing also entails changes in the structure of universities, their campuses and their curriculums, based on what best serves a target audience of prospective students and their parents (or, as universities are beginning to consider them, the customers).

Many schools go so far as to stop new programmes from being approved until market assessments are conducted, asking "what's your break-even (and) what's your competition?", said Tom Hayes, editor of The Journal of Marketing for Higher Education .

DePaul University, for instance, requires that a marketing analysis be conducted jointly with the curricular plan for any new programme, a process drawn without apology from consumer product marketing.

David Kalsbeek, DePaul's vice-president for enrolment management, said: "We could find ample evidence of great new products brought to market that failed, much of which was tied to inadequate assessment of the market opportunity."

In Northeastern's case, it worked. It was once the nation's largest private university but suffered several years of enrolment declines that threatened its survival. Its marketing campaign helped boost undergraduate enrolment to 14,492, up from 10,747 a decade before. The number of applications more than doubled.

The billboard in the baseball stadium "conveyed a sense of an institution on the move", Richard Freeland, Northeastern's president, said. "If Northeastern is doing this, there must be some interesting things going on there."

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