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WASHINGTON — It was the personalized emails that got Jadyn Turner to consider Catholic University when she was choosing a college. 

She still has them in her phone, along with a photo of herself holding up the Catholic University banner that came in the mail. Those and other inducements lured her to an open house at the business school, where she’s now majoring in entrepreneurship.

Even though marketing played a central role in her decision, however, Turner was surprised to learn the university, founded by U.S. Catholic bishops, is spending $5 million on a marketing and branding campaign and hiring five new marketing employees.

Jadyn Turner a student at Catholic University, was drawn there in part by aggressive marketing. Still, she says she was surprised to learn the university is spending $5 million on a new marketing and branding campaign. Credit: Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

“Five million dollars — that’s a lot,” said Turner, who hopes to go into nonprofit work, as she took a break from studying outside the student center. “I mean, wow.” Of higher education institutions advertising, she said: “I didn’t know that was a thing”

In fact, the sum is small compared to what other colleges and universities are investing in advertising, marketing and promotion, which has been steadily rising and is on track this year to be nearly double what it was last year.

Among the reasons are a steep ongoing decline in enrollment, made worse by the pandemic, and increasing competition from online providers and others.

“Private schools in particular are acutely conscious of the demographics in this country. They’re competing for students, and marketing is how you have to do that.”

John Garvey, president, Catholic University

“Part of it is necessity and part of it is adapting to circumstances,” said Catholic University’s blunt-spoken president, John Garvey, in his office near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception with which the university shares its campus. Schools like his “are acutely conscious of the demographics in this country. They’re competing for students, and marketing is how you have to do that.”

America’s total number of students has declined by an unprecedented 2.6 million, or 13 percent, over the last decade. Another drop of 15 percent is projected, beginning in the mid-2020s, in the number of prospective college students graduating from high schools.

Before this downturn began, said Garvey, “there were more kids every year and people had the money to pay for college. And that’s no longer true.”

The marketing and advertising boom is also a response to increasing public skepticism about the need to go to college in the first place, said Elizabeth Johnson, chair of the higher education marketing agency SimpsonScarborough.

Related: Colleges face reckoning as plummeting birthrate worsens enrollment declines

“This anti-college narrative has been building, and that’s something [universities and colleges] have to market against,” Johnson said.

A Gallup poll found that the proportion of Americans who consider college to be very important had fallen from 70 percent in 2013 to 51 percent by 2019. And that was before the shutdowns and confusion of the Covid-19 pandemic, which other surveys show has further damaged public confidence.

Spending on marketing by universities and colleges is hard to track; it’s often spread among many departments, including student recruiting, athletics and fundraising, and not required to be disclosed.

Catholic University President John Garvey. Private universities “are competing for students, and marketing is how you have to do that,” Garvey says. Credit: Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

A SimpsonScarborough survey, however, found that institutions spend between $429 and $623 per enrolled student, per year, on marketing.

As for advertising, colleges collectively spent $2 billion on it in 2018 and $2.2 billion in 2019, according to the brand consulting company Kantar, which monitors this. While the total declined at the peak of Covid-19, it nearly doubled in the first quarter this year compared to the same period last year, to $870 million. While higher education advertising has historically been dominated by for-profit providers such as the University of Phoenix, spending by those schools began to flatten out or fall in the mid-2010s while advertising spending by public and private nonprofit universities began to rise, another analysis, by the Educational Marketing Group, found.

Colleges and universities spend between $429 and $623 per enrolled student, per year, on marketing.

“Some people may be doing it with reluctance, but they’re definitely understanding that this is something that has to be happening now,” said Fox Troilo, managing director and head of higher education at the consulting firm Hanover Research.

Among the biggest players are online giants including the nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University, which tax documents show spent $144 million on advertising and promotion in 2019. Nonprofit Western Governors University spent $127 million that year. The University of Maryland Global Campus announced in 2019 that it would spend $500 million on marketing over the following six years, half of it on digital advertising.

But other private nonprofits, including some that are highly selective, are also channeling tens of millions into advertising. Johns Hopkins reported spending $29.6 million in one year; New York University, $28.5 million; the University of Pennsylvania, $25.7 million; Northwestern, $25.6 million; the University of Miami, $23.2 million; Columbia, $13.2 million; Boston University, $12.7 million; Georgetown, $11.6 million; and Stanford, $10.3 million. The figures are from 2018 or 2019, whichever was the most recent tax year for which the institutions have provided documents.

Related: Poll: Nearly half of parents don’t want their kids to go straight to a four-year college

A spokesman for BU said the money went to promote online and continuing education, fundraising and events. Columbia advertised executive education, some degree programs, fundraising, hospital services, employee recruitment and athletics, a spokesman said. A Stanford spokesman said the advertising was for continuing and executive education, new hybrid graduate degrees and seven new graduate certificates. The other universities did not respond when asked why and on what they spent those dollars.

Kean University in New Jersey announced in September that it was becoming an “official education partner” of the New York Jets, citing the marketing advantages of the deal. A spokeswoman would not disclose details of the arrangement but the contract — which called for the financial terms to be kept secret but was obtained by The Hechinger Report through a public-records request — shows the public university is paying the Jets $250,000 a year for three years, with the option of a two-year extension at an additional $250,000 a year.

Some student advocates say this money could instead be spent on such things as support services.

Catholic University was founded by U.S. Catholic bishops. It has announced a $5 million revamp of its marketing and branding. Credit: Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

“They could probably use those resources in another way — financial aid, lowering student-to-faculty ratio, adding course sections so students didn’t wait on waitlists,” said Stephanie Hall, senior fellow at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation.

These advocates also raise concerns about the targets of this marketing — often wealthier students who can afford to pay at least some of the tuition, as opposed to promising lower-income prospects who are often racial and ethnic minorities.

“If you need full-paying students, you are going to market to those students,” Hall said.

But Garvey, at Catholic University, said there’s a simple and critical reason universities need to spend money on marketing. “It’s essential to the financial health of the university that we attract students to come here,” he said.

“They could probably use those resources in another way — financial aid, lowering student-to-faculty ratio, adding course sections so students didn’t wait on waitlists.”

Stephanie Hall, senior fellow, The Century Foundation

Meanwhile, at a time of renewed emphasis on diversity and equity, 61 percent of chief marketing and communications officers in higher education are male and 93 percent are white, according to the executive search firm Russell Reynolds.

“I would be nervous if I were a president of a university, and I’ve said publicly that our goal is to increase access, and my marketing staff is 61 percent male and 93 percent white,” Hall said.

Several bills in Congress, including the 2020 College Affordability Act, have proposed requiring colleges to report what they spend on marketing and advertising or ban them from using federal money for marketing if they fall below a minimum amount of spending on instruction. So far the legislation has not gone anywhere.

Another impact of Covid is that student recruiters have been unable to travel, and some universities moved the money they usually spend visiting high schools into digital media and other kinds of advertising, said Ardis Kadiu, CEO and founder of the higher education admissions marketing firm Element451; he said his business has doubled since before the pandemic.

Related: Beer making for credit: Liberal arts colleges add career tech

Because fewer students took the SAT and ACT during Covid, colleges lost an easy route to capturing their names and contact information. So they’re spending more on marketing technology from firms like Kadiu’s that can track and target prospective applicants by, for example, monitoring what pages of an institution’s website users checked out, in much the same way consumers suddenly start seeing ads for products they searched on Amazon.  

It’s a huge turnaround from a time when administrators hesitated to talk about marketing, never mind throwing around terms such as “earned media” and “brand spend” and coming up with advertising slogan-style taglines (“A journey to excellence,” “A foundation for life,” “Be the change,” “Dream big”). A story about higher education marketing in 2006 was titled “The M Word.”  

“Say the word ‘marketing’ and you could hear faculty members gasp,” T. R. Straub, executive search and assessment consultant at Russell Reynolds, recalled of those days.

“Fifteen years ago, it was akin to blasphemy,” said Greg O’Brien, chief growth officer of the enrollment consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

Today, however, 56 percent of university chief marketing officers serve at their university’s executive level and 43 percent report directly to presidents, SimpsonScarborough found. They not only market the institutions but apply research to help devise strategies, set prices and decide which programs to beef up or strip down.

Colleges collectively spent $2 billion on advertising in 2018 and $2.2 billion in 2019.

It’s these senior marketers who “are seeing the conversation on social media, and they’re understanding the user analytics and what’s happening on your website or in your digital communications,” said Angela Polec, vice president of enrollment, marketing and communications at La Salle University (“Explorers are never lost”). A small but growing number of chief marketing officers in higher education — 14 percent, according to a Russell Reynolds survey — come from the private sector. These include Dan Dillon, a former senior vice president at Coca Cola and chief marketing officer at Outback Steakhouse, who took the role at Arizona State University (“Innovation drives us forward”). Purdue chief marketing officer R. Ethan Braden previously was a marketing director at the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

Chief marketing officers earn as much as $375,000 a year, depending on the size of the institution, and oversee an average of nine to 24 employees, SimpsonScarborough says. The American Marketing Association’s annual higher education symposium has grown from 300 participants 10 years ago to nearly 1,500 in 2019, though last year’s conference was online, and this year’s attendance is limited by Covid.

Related: How a decline in community college students is a big problem for the economy

“In five, 10, 15 years, higher education marketing will look like it looks at GE,” said Bill Faust, senior partner and chief strategy officer of the marketing firm Ologie, whose higher education clients include Stanford, Penn, Smith, Rutgers and Carnegie Mellon.

Braden, at Purdue, has 65 people serving under him, he said, including 13 hired during the pandemic, and estimated that the university has another 250 employees campuswide in marketing or communications roles.

During the pandemic, Purdue doubled down on its tagline (“Persistent innovation. Together”), attracted 90,000 new social media followers and saw a 58 percent increase overall in social media engagement, the university says. It was named the 2020 higher education marketing team of the year by the American Marketing Association; Braden won marketer of the year.

“Institutions vary in terms of their embrace of the ‘M’ word or the ‘B’ word [for “branding”] but generally speaking, you’re seeing a maturation of marketing and particularly brand management in higher ed,” Braden said.

This is no longer a luxury for colleges and universities, administrators said. That declining enrollment means prospective students enjoy a buyer’s market, and Braden likened the number of choices they have to “the yogurt aisle in a French grocery store.”

Or, as Faust puts it, “There’s just no way you can have an industry this big that keeps just saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ ”

Karna Lozoya, Catholic University’s vice president for university communications. “We have to really reach out to students and make our case,” Lozoya says. Credit: Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report

This is a particular issue for small liberal arts colleges, which are under worsening enrollment and financial pressure.

“For a lot of smaller institutions, it’s taken a while to get to this point. But people are beginning to understand the necessity” of marketing, said Kristen Lainsbury, vice president for marketing and communications at Earlham College, which has been running annual deficits and suffered budget cuts and layoffs when enrollment dropped off earlier in the pandemic.

“For the most part, we felt like we didn’t really have to do marketing, and a few years back that all changed,” said Lainsbury, who started in the job in February. “We saw that our competition was really investing in digital marketing in particular, and we realized if we didn’t start investing in that way, we wouldn’t be part of the conversation.”

Now Earlham (“Education for good”) is advertising on social media and online.

Done well, marketing “provides a return that makes the institution healthier,” said Teresa Flannery, former chief marketing and communications officer at Stony Brook University and the University of Maryland (“Fear the turtle”) and author of “How to Market a University.” And “there’s never been a better time for higher education marketing professionals to prove their value.”

Not everyone can afford to spend this kind of money. At community colleges, for example, “if you look at it in terms of dollars, we are grossly outspent,” said Debra McGaughey, director of communication services at Houston Community College (“For Everyone, Anytime, Any Way”) and president of the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, which represents marketing directors at community and technical colleges.

Community colleges are trying to be more strategic, shifting their limited resources from advertising on billboards and bus shelters to using online and direct mail, on the grounds that many of their prospective students have been stuck at home and not on roads or buses.

Related: Racial gaps in college degrees are widening, just when states need them to narrow

“If we’re not marketing, we’re just not going to make it. It’s as integral as teaching and learning in the classroom,” McGaughey said. “But we cannot compete with an institution spending millions on national campaigns. We have to work smarter.”

Catholic University’s vice president for university communications, Karna Lozoya, went to a higher education marketing conference to learn about what other colleges were doing.

Instead, she said, “what I realized was that marketing was new to the landscape. A lot of these institutions are more than 100 years old, and they still hadn’t figured out how to do communications.”

The world has changed, Lozoya said.

“We’re in a different era right now,” she said. “We have to really reach out to students and make our case.”

This story about higher education marketing was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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