Student as Spirit Animal

It may seem pretty obvious that the student we’re trying to recruit is the person solidly at the center of the university marketing strategy. But is it so obvious that it is easily overlooked?

Colleges may think they are being thoughtful in developing target messaging, but if they are not keeping pace with reality or relying on outdated research or beliefs they may be missing who their current audience really is.

As with the start of every new initiative, it makes sense to revisit what we think we know about our prospects, our market position and our brand perception. And the givens – the things we take for granted as being constants for our school, are the very notions that need to be challenged the most. Unfortunately, as reality sets in some important steps are skipped – which can take your marketing efforts in some unintended directions.

Guide Us Future Student

Spirit animals carry meaning, wisdom and power for the journey ahead. Tradition says that each person is connected to the energies of an animal that shares similar core strengths. Strengths that we can call upon to guide us as we make life decisions and discover our personal truths.

The truth is, most of us humans, particularly in a professional context, prefer to take the long route to “evidence-based” decision making. Lots of research, validation, board presentations, input from the provost, president and anyone else who will talk to us.

A problem arises when the market continues to change while we are distilling, debating, shaping, analyzing, testing, and fighting for budgets. Then finally, when we are ready to implement that updated strategy we find ourselves playing catch-up to try to meet the needs of our current prospect as she is right now.

My suggestion is not to replace concrete market research. Quite the opposite. I recommend that schools do it much more than they typically do.

Rather, I suggest layering in some intuitive, spirit-animal thinking as an important gut check to confirm that we are still headed in the right direction. And to try to listen to some of the intangible factors that we don’t always give voice to with other qualitative and quantitative methods.

If you throw away the assumptions you’ve been making about your target audience, what might you discover?

Like a spirit animal that keeps showing up at key moments to prompt you to pay attention, there are signals and trends that may do the same for us as we shape our university recruitment strategies.

Here are three worth watching:

  1. When’s the last time you took a look at supply and demand?

With population shifts in our country, the flow of students is changing – and not insignificantly for many institutions.

There is tension between two realities. The vast majority of students choose a school within 100 miles of their home. And, some regions of the U.S. will continue to produce fewer high school grads in the next decade.

The Northeast and the Midwest have higher concentrations of colleges and universities. These two regions are expected to also see a continued decline in students graduating from high school. A double whammy if this is where your school is located and your main student population has typically come from.

The Midwest looks to be facing the most serious drop. Ohio, Michigan and Illinois are trending to a nearly 30 percent drop in high school graduates between 2009-2028.

According to the Western Interstate Commission, the only spot that shows predicted growth is the South. Texas, Florida and Georgia are growing by 10 percent or more.

How will these geographic population trends impact what your student spirit guide looks like? If you haven’t started adjusting (or feeling) these implications, the clock is ticking.

  1. Are you thinking diversity beyond the numbers?

Your campus may already be ethnically diverse. Or at least more so that it was a decade ago. Regardless of the racial and ethnic makeup of your population today, you need to get ahead of the curve that is continuing to bend.

In addition to the population shifts already mentioned, the composition of the next generation of college students might look different than you think.

It’s not enough to merely acknowledge the fact that the number of white, non-Hispanic students of college age is declining.

We have to take a closer look at what this means – beyond the numbers. The tactics you’re using to reach a more diverse student population are not about doing more of the same. Or merely throwing some ethnic media channels into the mix.

The Chronicle of Higher Education describes what areas that have depended on a solid flow of white students are facing. California is projected to have 37,000 fewer white high school graduates by the end of this decade. At the same time, 28,000 more Hispanic students will graduate.

It was startling to me to learn that although every ethnic group is increasing in college degree attainment—the gap between white and Asian, and everyone else, is giant.

The percentage of the overall U.S. population between 25 and 64 earning a college degree is nearly 40 percent. The crusher? The rate for blacks is 28 percent and Hispanics is only 20 percent.

Sure we can attribute the numbers at the higher end of that age range to account for some of it. But the reality is, we have significant cultural and socioeconomic factors that need to be woven into our approach.

Many of our clients are already struggling to adjust to meet the needs of incoming students who are less prepared, with lower family incomes and increased responsibilities on the home front. This isn’t going away. And certainly the real discussion isn’t around merely how to market to these students, but how our degree programs and academic models can evolve to serve them better.

Where on your campus is this conversation happening? The sooner and higher up the marketing function can be involved in and informing these decisions – the better your enrollment function will fare now and in the future. Listen to the whisper of your student spirit animal and turn this issue up to the level it deserves.

  1. Talking about my generation?

Ok, people. The first Millennials were born in 1978. They will celebrate their 40th birthday next year.

I hear many schools still talking about their strategy for this generation—even though it’s not really at all whom they are targeting to complete the next cohort.

Of course, Millennials may very well be your target. But it doesn’t hurt to stop and make sure your strategies match the generational behaviors of the group you most want to attract.

Generation Z —Age 22 and younger makes up the largest percentage of our population—and by 2020 will be a full one-third of the entire United States.

This post-millennial generation is more than just a shift in catchy marketing jargon. There are some significant differences that show up in the high school class of 2013 and younger that you need to pay attention to. Here are just a few.

Generation Z is more:

  • Global minded. If you don’t have a global perspective as an institution, you’re not worth their time
  • Fragmented. Yes, it’s possible. Millennials manage to juggle two screens at a time. Gen Z masters up to five. How does that impact not just your marketing strategy but course delivery?
  • Value focused. They like bargains. And they will hold out and drive farther to save money. Interestingly enough, they are more likely to click on banner ads than Millennials, too.
  • About images. Less copy. More photographs. And no fake stock images.
  • Entrepreneurial. 72% of them envision working for themselves one day. How does this quest for independence show up in your marketing to them?
  • Early starters. Unlike the slightly older crowd, this group is more likely to skip a traditional four-year degree. They are more disposed to avoid debt, pursue part time or online options, or choose a focused career college. Practical, focused and unafraid to be unconventional.

Overwhelming? Doesn’t have to be. This is not about starting over. It’s about doing the work, trusting your instincts and making sure that you get out of your own way. Recognizing your own bias is the most important step to building an enriched perspective. When in doubt, check with your guides and don’t be afraid to adjust your course. The right students are out there, ready to show you just what they need.


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