Across the country, colleges have bombarded prospective students with mailed brochures, pamphlets and personalized emails in recent years, and now live streams, digital information sessions and virtual tours in the COVID-19 era.
It’s all been in response to fewer people enrolling in higher education institutions in America. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between fall of 2009 and 2019, the total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions decreased from 17.5 million to 16.6 million students, even before the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Correspondingly, 26% of bachelor degree-granting colleges in the U.S. increased their marketing budgets in the 2019-20 fiscal year, according to a study by SimpsonScarborough.
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Fortunately, Associate Director of Undergraduate Communications and Marketing Greer Davis said the University of Wisconsin is not a part of these statistics.
“UW–Madison is seeing significant increases in applications [and] enrollment, so we are fortunately not to be in a position of needing to make increases to our marketing budget, nor do we do paid advertisement,” Davis said.
UW enrollment has increased from 43,336 in the fall of 2016 to 47,936 students in the fall of 2021, steadily growing over the last five years — unlike some other colleges in the U.S.
Davis claimed UW is using new marketing techniques to keep their numbers of students high, compared to other schools.
“As part of our commitment to a diverse student body, we use marketing to reach out to students who may feel like college isn’t an option because of cost, distance, or other reasons,” Davis said. “This is often most relevant in rural and urban populations.”
Many U.S. colleges continue to have decreasing enrollment rates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Between fall 2009 and 2019, enrollment in private for-profit institutions decreased by 49%, enrollment in public institutions decreased by three percent and enrollment at private nonprofit institutions increased by eight percent.
According to research by the Educational Marketing Group, paid advertising for colleges has grown in the past few years, too. Between 2013 and 2016, four-year public school advertising spending grew by 43% and private non-profit institutions increased advertising by almost 40%. In 2016, four-year public schools spent $340 million on advertising alone.
Colleges have been adopting increasingly personalized marketing techniques, sharing content specific to the academic and extra-curricular interests of prospective students.
UW implemented a Constituent Relationship Management tool that helps to track prospective students’ interests.
“This [tool] has allowed us to add significantly to our strategic communications plan and better segment our communications to reach specific audiences and ensure that information is relevant to our prospective students, their families, and high school and college counselors,” Davis said.
UW also uses traditional return-on-investment tactics to understand the impact of particular marketing efforts and uses inquiries, applications and enrollment as indicators of success.
“Marketing allows us to continue to share the incredible opportunities that UW–Madison has to offer, but also to reach new audiences from across the 72 counties of Wisconsin, the United States, and the world, helping us to bring unique perspectives that contribute to our university mission and the Wisconsin Idea,” Davis said.
COVID-19 changed plans for enrollment during the 2020-2021 school year at universities across the U.S., according to a research study from the National Center for Education Statistics. This was primarily due regarding COVID-19 infections or not being able to pay for educational expenses because of changes in income associated with the pandemic.
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But, these concerns did not affect UW’s enrollment rates as much as other schools’, according to Davis.
“While COVID-19 impacted other schools in declining applications and enrollment, that is not true for UW–Madison; we saw an increase in applications and in enrollment so we were in a position to not need to increase marketing, and focus more on increased communication,” Davis said.
UW saw an increase in enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020, though at a smaller rate than the previous few years.
UW continued to mail materials home to students and families throughout the pandemic and created digital versions of publications for freshmen, transfer and international students. The university also launched a virtual campus tour and pivoted quickly to offer virtual events, open houses, and admissions programming.
Davis said COVID-19 changed the way marketing looked, forcing the university to find new ways to connect with students and provide opportunities to those who may not have been able to visit campus prior to COVID-19. Health and during COVID-19 also became a new and important content area in marketing, Davis said.
“Finding the balance of what life on campus and in Madison will be like and look like when they are a student in the future, with the reality of what it looks like now and how people were feeling about large groups and public indoor settings played a big factor in how we told our story,” Davis said.