Eradicate Digital Advertising in Higher Education to Better Serve Students

I”m concerned about higher education advertising. In fact, it might even be hurting students and prospective students. Perhaps you don’t know this, but marketing budgets have been on the rise in higher education institutions around the United States for quite some time. When you look at Universities offering online programs, we see this even more. To “complete” for adult learners, evening students, and online students, the cost is quite surprising to many. It is not unheard of for an institution to spend thousands to recruit one new online MBA student. MBA is an especially competitive and pricey search term for higher education advertisers who are bidding against one another to have their ad show up first.

In business, we sometimes talk about the cost per acquisition or cost per conversion. This is how much money a business needs to spend on marketing and sales to convert someone to become a paying customer. As long as the business gets an adequate return on that marketing and sales investment, it is often considered a wise financial investment. This is now the mindset of a growing number of people in higher education.

When online learning started to take off, we saw a large initial growth in for-profit companies that brought with them this business mindset. They were more than ready to invest greater amounts of money to draw the attention of prospective students away from other schools and to them. Being new to the market and not having a trusted brand, they had to buy the attention, and companies like Google and countless other digital advertising services were happy to assist in the effort…at a cost, of course. Now it is not just the for-profit companies. I’m simplifying it, but this is part of what sparked and all out “spending war” in higher education today. We are talking about a multi-billion dollar digital advertising industry, and higher education is contributing more than ever to that pool of money. This 2009 article reported the University of Phoenix spending over 100 million on advertising annual. While there are not many with that large of a budget, we’re witnessing some massive dollars invested in recruiting students. Schools with very large online programs might not be spending as much as the for-profits, but many of them are still investing significant amounts to online advertising and related recruitment efforts. It is a competition among schools that is driving the costs of recruiting students upward each year.

When many traditional Universities sought to grow their online programs, some did it in-house, but most needed to up their marketing investment significantly to do that. That is why Universities were willing to hire outside companies to do the recruiting for them. The companies bring the upfront capital and do the big advertising investment, but then they get to keep a big part of the tuition. I’ve spoken directly to many of these external groups, and they can get anywhere from 15% to over 60% of the tuition depending upon the services that they provide. As I’ve already stated, all of this is generating a true spending war for the attention of prospective students.

It does nothing to help students.

  • It doesn’t help them find the best fit school.
  • It doesn’t provide them better information to consider their options.
  • It doesn’t promote a more thoughtful deliberation process.
  • It potentially draws money away from Universities that could be used to improve the student experience, the academic programming, or even to reduce tuition or provide academic scholarships.

At the same time, this “war” is driving greater University expenditures on digital ads, even as there is still a debate about whether they really work. Having a well-known and recognized University brands is almost certainly a stronger asset. Yet, when a locally known or regionally known school wants to compete for attention, they start spending precious University money to do so, money that quite often comes from student tuition.

For these and other reasons, we need to disrupt this current higher education advertising system, and I believe that educational entrepreneurs and other social entrepreneurs can help. If we can create a robust ecosystem of student/college matchmaking technologies, then I believe that we can reduce the need for and impact of digital advertising. We can create “go to” sources to help students find the best schools for their needs, and they can do it without clicking on a single ad that chases them around the web. They can get good, detailed, substantive information and guidance from neutral sources.

In this end, this can be good for students and for colleges. It might hurt Google, Facebook, Instagram, or others who are looking for a chunk of the higher education marketing purse, but something tells me that they will be just fine.

So, here is my dream in this regard. I would love to see a convening of educational entrepreneurs, foundations, investors, policymakers, students, and University leaders, join in this common cause, a cause to eradicate obscene higher education advertising spends while creating better ways to connect students and higher education institutions. A coalition of organizations can make a difference here. Matchmaking companies like have the right idea. So do groups like QuestBridge that help make connections in a different way, but these are each too small and too niche to disrupt the entire system. If we can build a strong and diverse enough ecosystem of such providers that addresses diverse needs, I believe that we can do some real good.