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Is Demography Destiny?

Despite what you may have thought, colleges and univerisities can control many of the variables that impact enrollment.
University Business, Jan 2007

In 2009, the U.S. will graduate the largest number of high school seniors in the history of the country. That's the good news. Now here is what many feel is the bad: Over the next 30 years, for a full generation, the number of high school graduates will decline.

This demographic downturn has a number of schools, especially those that depend heavily on full-time residential students, in a dither. These schools are focused on the raw, declining demography, and they are worried.

Students notice when an institution is on the move, and so do donors.

However, when I consider all of the factors that impact enrollment, I wonder whether demography really is destiny. In other words, are there other factors that might have as much, or even more, impact on enrollment than the aggregate number of students in the marketplace? After some reflection, I think there are.

Although there are internal and external variables that affect enrollment, I want to focus on the internal institutional variables; variables that, to some degree, are controllable.

The No. 1 reason people do not donate to a college is that, from their perspective, the vision for the institution is not compelling. I think prospective students are a lot like donors. They do not want to attend an institution that is not going anywhere. They are instinctively wary of stagnation. Earlier this year, I did a focus group at the University of Kentucky and asked a group of students why they enrolled at UK. Without prompting almost everyone responded, "Because this school is going places." They were excited and enthused, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Students notice when an institution is on the move. So do donors and the media. This creates positive buzz for the college or university.

In previous issues of University Business, I have written extensively on the topic of leadership. I want to summarize those earlier columns by saying this: A leader's ability to develop and convey a compelling vision, build an effective senior team, focus efforts, and gather essential resources is critical. (The November 2005, and the January, March, and September 2006 issues of University Business featured a four-part series on how to build an effective senior team. In particular, notice the characteristics of effective leaders presented in the first column.) Institutions on the move, the type of institutions that attract students, are almost always institutions that are well led.

Being known for something that students (and donors) value gives an institution an unparalleled opportunity in the marketplace. Remember, it is not enough to be good at something students value; students must be aware of what you offer. When they are, they will seek you out and pay more for tuition. The marketplace will seek you out as well. NPR will call and so will donors and organizations that seek to co-brand. The result, again, is buzz. This concept is neatly summarized by the following adage: If you do not have mindshare, you will never have marketshare. (See the April 2006 issue of University Business for a lengthy article on brand building.)

There is a misguided notion that every college must offer the same academic programs as its competitors. They believe that this will help them be a respected member of the higher education community. What they have done, however, is fielded an array of academic programs that are largely undifferentiated from institution to institution. When every college offers the same basic program taught the same basic way (all by excellent faculty), then students begin to differentiate on another variable: price.

Interestingly, this academic "keeping up with the Joneses," especially when dollars are tight, actually lessens quality rather than increasing it. Institutions have confused academic breadth with academic quality, and more students have tumbled to this phenomenon. Besides asking about student-to-faculty ratios, they're asking about the ratio of full-time faculty to majors and departments. They have become wary of the one- and two-person departments.

Cost is always a greater issue when the perceived value of an institution is vague or unclear.

Rather than breadth, colleges and universities should develop depth around a handful of specific, valued programs. To do so, we suggest that you:

Identify the academic programs of keen interest to prospective students.

Determine, via research, which programs you are already known for.

Determine the academic strengths of regional competitors.

Determine which programs are of high interest to donors.

Avoid duplicating the academic strengths of regional competitors.

Evaluate job market data. Focus especially on high-demand programs that lead to higher-paying jobs.

Determine which of your academic programs offer true quality.

Cost and Financial Aid

The next two variables-cost and the adroit use of financial aid-are inextricably linked. Let's begin with cost by stating the obvious: The less expensive you are, the greater the number of people that can afford you. But we are talking about more than dollar costs here. There are also nondollar costs and the whole idea of value (the relationship between costs and benefits). You can wrap all these issues up into a basic question: Do students think you are worth the money? If they do, they will attend. If they don't, they won't.

Of course, there is a difference between gross cost and net, and that is where the adroit use of aid comes into play. Notice that I did not say amount of aid. Rather, we are looking at how strategically the college or university uses aid. A number of studies indicate that students are as concerned about how they are treated in the financial aid process as they are about the amount of aid they receive. In other words, do not just focus on the financial aid dollars that are available to you.

Let me offer two quick takeaways: First, cost is always a greater issue when the perceived value of an institution is vague or unclear. Second, students generally incur more debt for institutions with a greater reputation in the marketplace.

An affinity group is a sizable number of prospective students who are predisposed to attending a particular institution. Each year in Ohio, for example, there are thousands of students who grew up wanting to be Buckeyes. In Iowa it is Hawkeyes. In most cases, there is a strong correlation between affinity groups and sports. For Notre Dame (Ind.), the affinity group is attracted to the idea of going to the nation's premier Catholic college. In a similar manner, Brigham Young (Utah) attracts students of the Mormon faith.

Institutions that serve diverse student populations will likely have an easier job hitting their aggregate enrollment goals than those that do not. When we think of diversity, we tend to associate it with ethnicity. However, diversity can be much more:

Residential and nonresidential

Traditional and nontraditional age

Full-time and part-time

Degree seeking and students who wish to pursue a course or two

Precollege students (high school) and postcollege students (retirees)

Domestic and foreign students

"Brick" (physical) students and "click" (online) students

You don't want to lose focus in pursuing diversity, but we live in an era when the notion of "what is a student" appears to be changing almost daily. Remember, too, that the commitment to diversity must go beyond recruiting to providing the best possible educational experience for all the students that you seek to recruit.

Well-appointed campuses are more likely to attract students than those campuses that are not. Of course, the definition of "well-appointed" keeps changing with the "consumerification" of higher education. Today's students anticipate great facilities, ubiquitous technology, beautiful landscaping, and amenities ranging from climbing walls to juice bars. Colleges recognize this, as exemplified by the "money walk," the path that prospective students take from the visitor parking lot to the Admissions office and beyond. The money walk, typically, features the campus at its visual best and has a demonstrated impact on prospective students.

Colleges and universities that use a robust integrated marketing model that embraces reputation building (or "prerecruiting"), recruiting, and retention will have a distinct advantage in the marketplace. This model begins with a clear understanding of what type of student persists. It then involves building a reputation in the markets where sufficient numbers of these students live. Then, the model brings to bear sufficient recruiting resources. Finally, the model stresses a proactive approach to retention that centers on delivering an exceptional student experience. More than enrollment management, an integrated marketing model precedes recruiting (brand building) and continues through alumni relations and beyond.

Of course, the number of students in the marketplace is important. But there are other variables that are largely up to institutional control and can have an equal or even greater impact on your ability to recruit students.

Robert Sevier, a senior VP at Stamats Communications, is the author of Building a Brand That Matters: Helping Colleges and Universities Capitalize on the Four Essential Elements of a Block-Buster Brand, available from

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