Higher Ed Marketing Secrets: The Ingenious Business of Recruiting Online Students

by Staff Writers

When it comes to convincing students to ditch the old brick-and-mortar institutions for the digital classroom, both for-profit and free online courseware providers have some built-in advantages. For starters, they represent an exciting new alternative to a system that has become bloated and largely ineffectual. Parents, educators, and investors want to see online providers succeed and are virtually throwing money at them (the market is expected to be $100 billion by 2015). And don't forget the pricing, online ed's bread and butter. For a fraction of the cost (or for free), students can get just the information they need without paying for new libraries, gym equipment they'll never use, or redundant college employees.

But as with any great product, nobody is going to beat a path to your door to get it. Web-based colleges and universities — both for- and non-profit— still have to shake young people out of the belief that college is a building you go to far away from your house after you finish high school. So they've put on their marketing caps and gotten down to business with some clever techniques.


A critical facet of any good marketing campaign is finding a niche whose needs are not currently being met and targeting it. Since the inception of for-profit online colleges, one of their biggest selling points has been the ability to tailor the experience to fit a working student's busy schedule. The closest thing that traditional colleges could offer was part-time or night classes, which still involved travel time, higher costs, and a different experience than the business-hours students were getting.

Online colleges kill brick-and-mortar-only schools on the issue of timing, and they make it a top selling point. With year-round enrollment, classes that start anytime or every month, and the fact that unlike the engineering building, the Internet never closes, online ed providers may tell students' that their "future starts today" and really mean it.

Lately, the refrain from for-profit online colleges has been "spend, baby, spend." Some have had to shutter locations and eliminate jobs to save money, then take the offensive with advertising campaigns. In late 2012, the University of Phoenix was Google's single biggest advertiser. Other for-profits rounded out the top 25.

With all their Web marketing, online educators still manage to put more effort than brick-and-mortars into recruiting students through the good old boob tube. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a TV spot for a traditional college? Maybe early January, during a football bowl game commercial break? Now think about the last time you saw a commercial urging you to get up off the couch and get your career started with an online degree. Chances are it happened the last time you hit the power button on the remote.

Even in the age of DVR, the TV commercial strategy is smarter than it might seem, because it turns out TV is an even better marketing vehicle for college-age students than Facebook. In a survey of 7,500 college students across the country, a 2012 report by the Barnes & Noble College Marketing Division found that 19% of students find TV ads the most effective form of reaching them, just one point shy of those who felt email was the way to go. Only 9%, however, thought Facebook ads were effective.

An added bonus is that TV makes a perfect medium for staging celebrity endorsements, a classic marketing ploy that's notoriously effective with people of a certain age (a la Hollywood and smoking). In an August 2012 piece for Inside Higher Ed entitled "Online Ed Goes Hollywood," Kenneth Green pointed out that the recent campaign for the UCLA Extension Program called Empowered, which features such notables as Pierce Brosnan, James Gandolfini, and James Franco, is just the latest iteration of a trend begun by for-profit Kaplan University. In 2009 the company hired actor James L. Avery ("Uncle Phil" to you Fresh Prince fans) to record a spot pitching its online education services.

Some of the industry's more "aggressive recruiting tactics" are fortunately dwindling. The wheels are in motion at both the state and federal levels to temper for-profit recruiting methods, and the re-election of President Obama should continue to support efforts. But with the increased entrance of non-profit schools into online education, for-profits will need to continue reinventing their recruiting strategies to remain competitive.

MOOC and free education providers

You could say MOOCs sell themselves, except for that fact that a free good technically can't be sold. Companies that deliver free higher education experiences are going to great efforts to ensure the groundswell of attention open courseware is commanding translates into steady growth, not just in the number of participating students but also in profit.

For their star power, free online education providers are smart enough to recognize the drawing power of names like Duke, Caltech, Rice, Wesleyan, and Johns Hopkins. Companies like Coursera are slowly building their lists of partners, posting classes taught by big names from top schools. And universities, adopting the timeless "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy, are obliging them. Until recently, students who passed these classes had been able to get at best a certificate of completion or digital badge, and they had to pay for it. Courses for credit are the next big development that is already in the works.

In the meantime, the purveyors of free online education — the list includes organizations as diverse as NASA, Disney-Pixar, and the Mozilla Foundation — are already well on their way to perfecting the MOOC reward system known as digital badges. These electronic markers of merit are already helping draw online students, especially in fields like software engineering and computer science. Word is getting out that students really can and have landed jobs by virtue of passing MOOC courses in these subjects and adding the resulting badges to their resume.

Another lucrative market that MOOC providers are moving into is the student referral business. Students sign up to have their information shared with employers, who have paid the MOOC provider for the privilege of accessing the grades and contact info of promising students. Companies could potentially pay thousands of dollars to be connected with a job candidate with the exact skill set they are looking for. For each student an employer pays to contact, a percentage of around 10% goes to the college that offered the course. By making the service free to students, MOOC providers will recruit more users because of the increased incentive.

A lesson for old-school university marketing departments

Traditional colleges have never faced a bigger need to rethink their own marketing strategies, given all the competition they're now facing and the growing dissatisfaction with the customer experience they offer. In 2012, college enrollment showed unmistakable signs of slowing down for the first time in years. All of them are being forced to at least consider the possibility of expanding into the new territory of online education, and some admissions offices are already hoping to get a boon by taking a page from the MOOC provider playbook.

One of the "new" models some higher ed institutions — hard-pressed for both a way to differentiate and to combat growing concerns that pricey traditional college degrees are a poor investment — are trying is really not new at all. It may be a radical development in the centuries-old, hallowed halls of academia, but it's one of the oldest tricks in the restaurant business: giving out free samples. Lose a little profit up front in the hopes of turning first-time customers into repeat patrons by hooking them with a great product. In fact, even just an average product can be enough to keep them coming back and spending money once they've made a habit of frequenting that establishment and changing would be too much of a bother.

At the risk of comparing universities to fried chicken shacks, that's basically the principle behind MOOC2Degree. The program aims to capitalize on the massive wave of popularity MOOCs are currently enjoying as colleges pick courses they're already offering, turn them into MOOCs, and offer them for credit at their particular school. Students win by getting to effectively try before they buy, and colleges win by getting a chance to evaluate students' potential for success in college. Of course, they win again if students decide to enroll full-time after they earn that first credit via a MOOC. Currently eight schools are signed up, including Florida International University, the University of Arkansas system, and Utah State University, with more on the way.

It's a start, but much could still be done. Universities could stand a healthy dose of reality on the fact that however noble a pursuit a college degree may be, man cannot live on nobility alone. They would do well to market their degrees more like products, stepping-stones to jobs. Online colleges do this well — do a search and note the number whose motto is some variation of "your future starts today." How many times are philosophy majors at venerable institutions told that their degree is the start of a promising financial and work future? Probably not often, because they would laugh themselves out of the building and right into the arms of a much-less-costly MOOC.

It's unfortunate that we've arrived at the place where education has to be discussed in such mean terms as profitability, but such is the situation in which the old model has left us. Convinced of their own irreplacableness in American culture, brick-and-mortar schools have been too slow to acknowledge their role as preparers of future employees. Out of the gap have sprung online colleges and MOOCs, ready and willing to offer the education to get students from Point A to Point B, quickly and cheaply. Time will tell whether they will be able to maintain traditional universities' missions of molding well-rounded citizens, or whether there just isn't enough money in it.