University Marketing – Where the hell are all the students?

What is a small university supposed to do to boost enrollment? I have heard from 3 different small universities in the last year. Each are well known names with great programs, but they are languishing and their enrollment numbers are down.

5 years of low enrollment will force a university to significantly reduce the services they provide to students and the quality of their programs. This isn’t an official number, but it is what I have been told by people who run universities.

Over 3 years ago we did some work for one of Canada’s biggest universities. This university absolutely does not have an enrollment problem, quite the opposite, ballooning enrollment has pushed them to build so much, so fast, (both course/degree and physical infrastructure) that their student experience has been reduced to a completely operational and functional relationship.

Small universities are the biggest opportunity we have in this country to provide significant and worthwhile education.

What can a small university do to attract good students and build great programs? Here are some of the things we learned.

50% Education, 50% Experience

Most people don’t just learn, and almost all alumni remember their experience, not their actual education. If I asked you how you learned the ropes of your employment, would you think back to your History of the Classics. No, you’ll probably think about your year as an intern, or working in a software development team for the first time.

A place, not an institution

When someone fresh out of high school chooses a university, what is it that they are buying? There are dozens of factors in play, but the most significant is that persons perception of what their 4 years will be like. Rarely does a student, even the best student, have visions of fantastic lectures and great group study sessions. We all had visions of great parties, late nights with friends and whatever else we saw on TV. Our judgment of the institution went as far as to think “what have other people said about this place?”

How do we buy a place? We see ourselves in that place and we feel good about it. The problem with human beings is that we need other humans to tell us why, and how, we fit into that picture. We have brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers who help paint the picture for us. Small universities need to start identifying the students they really want to attract and then connect those students with other, real, students who can really paint the picture of life for them. The best medical and law schools in the country have been doing this for a long time, but it is small universities who can really do this.

The other thing that gets bought: Work

What good is it all if you end up with nothing? Making a career choice coming out of highschool is one of the biggest jokes I have ever seen. Very few people, like my wife Laurel, know exactly what they want to do. They are blessed with passion for something like Medicine or Law. Many make the wrong choice and pay dearly in their later years for it. I shudder a little bit when I see people entering law school, the truth is I know very few lawyers who are happy with their career. Many turn from high paying corporate law to things like community and family law for that very reason.

A small university should provide students with the opportunity to experience the real world of work. Not just internships and low level grunt work, but real work that matters.

Computer Science students should be building software to help run charities, and should be contributing actively to at least 1 open source project each. Students who run a successful open source project should be rewarded more.

Law students should be making the world a better place by investigating human rights violations both locally and internationally, medical students should be exposed to the great failures of our medical system as early as possible, not protected from them. Art students should redefine the university campus at the end of each academic year, which each student contributing something meaningful to the artistic life of the campus.

A great university demands that it’s students contribute something great. Right now, a report and an exam at the end of the course will do just fine to get them by, but that is not good enough!

Small is OK (and the best can charge more)

What a short sighted view. Most small universities see enrollment numbers as their greatest savior. “If only we could get 4% growth year over year”. What Starbucks has taught us so well was that a premium product gets a premium price.

All the haggling we are hearing over university tuition isn’t really about tuition at all. Students are crying foul over the quality of their education. I do not go to Starbucks to buy a Tim Horton’s quality coffee, I go to Tim Horton’s for a Tim Horton’s cup of coffee, so don’t try to tell me I am getting a Latte.

Small universities need to innovate an deliver great education at a great value, if they can do that, then the money will come. Better alumni who make more money. Look at Stanford, that place has almost the GDP of Canada (well,. perhaps not, but it seems like it!).

If you are delivering a great education, then you can put distance between yourself and the Degree commodity market that exists right now. Then you can negotiate with local and national governments in a meaningful way about things like tuition subsidies and capital budgets.

In short, it’s not about being as much like a big university as you can, it’s about being different, defined and the best in your own context. The quesion is, is your context People or is it Enrollment? That’s all for now, but certainly not everything.