Higher Education’s Turn in the Vortex of ChangeKaren Sibley | Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, Brown University
Imagine a collapsed higher education landscape; fewer institutions, more collaboration, a brand landscape that recognizes expertise and eliminates redundancy.
Here’s the mind-bending question that prompts this thought: What will brand value and marketing in higher education look like in 2023?
I’ve struggled with this prompt for two weeks. First, I considered familiar practices of “marketing” in higher education. Traditionally, colleges and universities promoted their distinctive qualities and brand with “viewbooks” aimed at high school students. More recently, the design and content of webpages has become important. In the past few years, social media has forced higher education’s attention. Other than our savvy business schools, few make strategic marketing efforts.
Then there’s sticker shock: the costs associated with serious marketing are stunning to the higher education community.
So I pondered the realities of extremely limited budgets, the lack of marketing professionals within our ranks and competition for traditional students. Assuming few changes in these factors, I’d predict more trial-and-error use of low-cost social media as the trend for higher education marketing and brand communication over the next 10 years, essentially, a status quo period with hopeful efforts to attract more students and avoid expense.
But nothing remains unchanged. Though we may be tiring of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) buzz, the up-scaling of online instruction is bringing technology-mediated learning to a new level of acceptance. The rush of research-intensive schools into the fold of online content delivery has, for many, toppled the skepticism and mistrust of this method of teaching and learning and brought us to a new period of experimentation and focus on quality considerations in this medium. Faculty who, only a short time ago, refused to teach online are now watching others with curiosity and many are willing to give this new mode a try. Student enrollments have soared to numbers no classroom can hold.
Wildly interesting and exciting outcomes for pedagogy in higher education are emerging from this trend-driven surge of activity. The idea of videoing a 90-minute lecture and calling it online instruction has clearly been tossed in the trash by talented instructional designers who have long been waiting for the chance to be heard. “Face-2-Face” classroom practices are being “flipped” in favor of more active classroom learning tactics with essential lecture, explanation and passive learning done on the student’s own time using the campus learning management system. Faculty are excited about pedagogy and the opportunity to experiment and gain thoughtful professional and peer advice most have never before enjoyed. One seasoned faculty member teaching a MOOC described a long-forgotten stroke of stage fright brought on at the recognition that 30,000 people would be watching him teach. Students engage with amazingly diverse classmates around the world and with broad experiences — very unlike even the most diverse traditional undergraduate classes on any campus.
But I digress; what about the question of brand and marketing efforts 10 years from now?
Anyone looking at higher education knows we must recognize new threats to our traditional landscape. Online dissemination of information, the now-ubiquitous ability to simply type in a “search,” has dramatically changed how we access information and learn. Online instruction causes us to question the value of traditional semester structures and solely residential learning experiences. With global demand for quality education, consumer brand recognition in higher education may collapse the number of most desired schools to a short list of recognized and trusted institutions. Small, regional institutions may hold on to their local 18 to 24-year-old students, but will this be enough for them to thrive? Pressed for new revenue streams and able, with online capacity, to reach beyond the limit of a 50-mile drive radius for adult student enrollments, institutions recognized for particular expertise or brand may eliminate competition from lesser known schools for this now-largest enrollment demographic.
If small regional schools are to survive, they may need to re-think their models and brand themselves as residential learning communities for young adults. Costs can be contained through collaboration for instructional resources with partner schools, letting distinct expertise be concentrated in particular institutions and achieving more comprehensive curricular coverage through consortia that share online instruction. The selection of a campus would then be about brand appeal for location, co-curricular activities and the type of community the campus designed itself to be. This model might best serve the traditional learner demographic, reduce redundancy, enhance quality and balance the bottom line.
Adult learners are likely to become far more savvy consumers given greatly expanded access to information and the emergence of crowd source rating capacity well beyond the control of any marketing or brand management efforts. More highly recognized brands and institutions using online mediation to eliminate restrictions of time and place will be attractive to this highly-informed student population. Driven to seek new enrollments and revenue and to respond to economic/market need, institutions already at the top of the pack will win the largest share of students in this advanced consumer market, eliminating market access for small regional schools. A short list of highly recognized schools (greatly reducing the current 3,500+ institutions in the United States) could emerge. This student population, which is used to on-demand purchasing tailored to their personal needs and preferences, will hold a high bar for the value of their time and money and lack tolerance for programs that don’t provide the components they need. Collaboration across this newly shaped higher education segment could also prove advantageous. Continuing to value research as a core enterprise, high-brand institutions may reduce variety and increase specialty focus, depending on the expertise of peers to serve student needs. “Unbundled” degrees carrying quality assurance achieved through co-dependent consortia of high standard peers could emerge in this new landscape.
As we’ve seen in the music industry, modes of delivery and purchasing practices will change. Like print media, fewer distributors may be required and new business models must emerge. And, like healthcare, demand to reduce excess and coordinate services across multiple providers to produce improved outcomes may be expected. Higher education is not immune to the forces of change that have struck other venerated sectors. In the next 10 years, a great evolution will be upon us.