Can a New Breed of Startup Solve the HigherEd Marketing Puzzle?

There must be a better way. Over the last fifteen years we’ve witnessed the rapid expansion of digital marketing in higher education, and this has implications for students. Universities compete to capture the attention of prospective students. However, there are signs of startups and innovations that might challenge or at least give an alternative to the current approach. Before I get to that, allow me to explain the current landscape.

Non-profit and for-profit higher education institutions spend billions annually on marketing. The “cost per acquisition” of a new student ranges from a few hundred to thousands depending upon the school, program and student demographic. For example, recruitment for online MBA students is extremely competitive, and it is not unheard of for an organization to spend anywhere from $2000 to $5000+ to recruit a single student.

This competition is further amplified by online degree programs. If you live in California and you use the Internet, there is little doubt that you’ve seen more than a few ads about Arizona State University’s online degrees. When it comes to online programs, there is little (expect for a large marketing budget) keeping Universities from marketing to students thousands of miles away. This means that a small or middle-sized school in a state is competing against millions of marketing dollars even when they are mainly focused on recruiting students within a few hundred square miles of their campus.

What does all this spending mean for prospective students? While I realize that I’m oversimplifying things, each dollar that goes toward marketing is a dollar that does not go toward reducing the cost of higher education for students or improving the academic experience. I spend my day job in such a world, and we consistently talk about spending as little as possible while finding and recruiting the students who can best benefit from what we have to offer; but that is an expensive endeavor in the digital space.

Prospective students are persistently confronted with online ads, marketing videos, and other efforts to gain their attention. When students use a search engine to explore potential higher education options, they witness a digital competition among University web sites, each hiring internal and external talent to optimize their sites for search, to increase their page rank, to be among the first to show up. The results of searches also show web sites that specialize in listing dozens or hundreds of higher education options. These are often companies that make money by charging Universities based on the “leads” (prospective students) that are provided through the site. Once prospective students show interest in a school, they are likely to find ads for that school following them around the web, showing up on the side of their favorite news and entertainment web sites.

This means that the success or viability of colleges and universities, especially those that rely on tuition dollars, is tied to their capacity to find some way to compete in this new landscape. How do you fill that freshman class or meet those enrollment targets? This is a critical issue for many schools. It becomes especially important when we expand our conversation from the small percentage of students who pursue a traditional residential four-year degree to the majority of college students today who are working adults, commuters, accelerated, and/or online students.

While far from certain, I see hints that much of this could change as people begin to experiment with data analytic tools that match people with products and services that best fit their needs and interests. Admittedly is a prime example of innovations that hint at such changes in the higher education space. Here is how they represent what they do:

Our goal is to help high school students find their dream schools and get accepted. We aim to build a platform to help students at all budgets, which is why our platform is completely free for all students. We’ve recently launched accounts for parents, mentors, counselors, and current college students, and will be building those out in the future.

The idea for Admittedly was originally hatched while Founder & CEO Jessica Brondo Davidoff was working as a private college admissions counselor and SAT/ACT prep instructor for her first company, The Edge in College Prep, which she founded in 2005 just a year after graduating from Princeton.

I don’t think they talk about it this way, but my first thought was, “Brilliant! This is a dating service concept applied to prospective students and colleges!” You answer a series of questions ranging from your academic record to interests and preferences. The Admittedly algorithm does the rest, providing you with a long list of recommended colleges, ranked by best fits. It tells you which colleges align well with your academic preparation, which are likely stretch goals for you, and which match goals and interests but are probably in the stratosphere for you based on their admission requirements. There are plenty of other web sits that offer you help finding a good college match, but I’ve not seen anything as detailed as Admittedly and their database of 300+ questions.

This is only part of what Admittedly does, but it is a brilliant concept, one that is worthy of gaining traction. Of course, there are risks of abuse. Companies providing services like this could become just as cost-prohibitive by charging Universities large fees for the leads generated from their service. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a business model, but that doesn’t help us address that massive marketing expenses that I already described. Also, much depends upon which colleges are represented in such company’s databases, whether the college’s features and requirements are accurately represented, whether all schools truly get an equal chance in the algorithm, or if this also just comes down to who is willing to pay the most to show up at the top of a student’s “best college fit” list.

Yet, what if companies like this are willing to be largely neutral (maybe even held externally accountable) and/or transparent about their matching methods? What if they are willing to help decrease the marketing expense problem by reducing the cost per new student paid by universities? Then they are not only helping prospective students through a great service. They may also be indirectly helping higher education institutions find ways to reallocate some of that marketing money toward student services or tuition discounts. Time will tell, but if such services truly help students find the best college fit and therefore increase retention and graduation rates, then this is a for-profit business model that is contributing massive good to higher education.

Admittedly’s focus seems to be on prospective traditional undergraduate students, and I’ve yet to see an equal for the larger number of non-traditional or post-traditional college prospects or graduate students. I have also not seen something like this that specializes in helping people sort through the growing number of online programs available to them. These are prime markets for services like Admittedly. It is only a matter of time before we see people filling these needs. What is uncertain is whether these new startups will simply join in driving up the cost of higher education marketing or if they can provide a truly positive change, decreasing marketing expenses while helping prospective students find schools that are a great fit.