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Winning the Spending War: How Colleges and Universities Can Attract Students Without Breaking the Bank

By January 11, 2018 Q & A No Comments

John Katzman has talked about a “spending war” in higher education, referencing how much colleges spend in advertising to recruit students. For-profit providers like the University of Phoenix have been known to spend more than 20 percent of tuition on marketing and advertising, and non-profit providers are increasing their own spend to similar levels. I sat down with Bernard Bull, Vice Provost for Curriculum and Academic Innovation at Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor, to discuss this phenomenon, and how institutions can make the most of their marketing budget to attract students.

Why do you think there is a major problem in higher education as it relates to advertising? Marketing can have a broad definition, including sports, alumni relations, corporate partnerships, discounts/scholarships and more. Do you distinguish between digital advertising such as Google and Facebook and offline advertising such as direct mail, billboards, radio spots and TV commercials? 

As I see it, there are several problems. One is that this growing marketing spend among non-profits is coming from somewhere. If 20 percent of the money is going to marketing, where was it going before and where could it be spent if this problem did not exist? We are in a time of incredible innovation, where some of the best resourced institutions are investing in incredible and promising teaching and learning innovations, student advising and student success efforts, and much more. This marketing allocation could be going toward such efforts, and so, ultimately, I see this as a teaching and learning issue.

As it stands, the majority of online teaching and learning, for example, is largely the same model as what we saw in the 1990s, with a few added technological bells and whistles. There are certainly exceptions to this, but it is discouraging to see such a small investment in that which directly impacts student learning and the student experience.

Or, could it be that this marketing spend keeps us from offering more scholarships or making the education more affordable? Some might argue that the increased spend grows our numbers, allowing schools the economy of scale, but that is not the norm. Nor is economy of scale necessarily applicable to all contexts and learning goals.

From another perspective, this is a problem because this marketing spend is not actually improving the quality student-school match. I followed a recent Facebook Group discussion where a teacher asked other teachers for advice on the best online graduate programs. I read a hundred plus responses, with people recommending wildly different schools for various reasons. Interestingly, not one of them made a recommendation based upon academic challenge, how much they learned or the richness of the academic community, but that is a discussion for another day. What was apparent in reading the responses is that these were largely subjective responses that seemed to be influenced by messaging and marketing more than anything else. Some touted the amazing price of a program that was actually thousands more than some of the others listed. Some talked about the pace to completion as the best when that was not accurate either.

The current advertising wars are not helping students find the programs that best match their needs, goals, gifts, interests, abilities, etc. We can do better, and this is an even larger motivator for me than the concern over the financial drain of the current higher education marketing climate.

If marketing is considered one of today’s higher education’s arms races (excluding rankings), what can be done to stop it?

There are dozens of possible solutions, but I believe that our increasingly algorithmic world is going to be part of the solution. There are lots of experiments out there that try to intelligently match people with products, services, organizations and other people. There are some promising examples of what is essentially a for prospective students and schools. I see huge promise in this solution, but only if the rules in the algorithm are transparent, there is candid and ongoing discussion about adjusting the rules, prospective students even have a voice and choice in customizing the algorithm, and it is done in a way that this doesn’t just become another forum for the advertising wars.

At the same time, these are small ponds. Most people just do Google searches, and the Tower of Google’s influence of higher education will be a tough one to address. Yet, as you might have heard in my interview with Katzman, it is achievable. People don’t go to Google when they want to find a book. They go to Amazon. They don’t go to Google as often when they want to find a hotel or make a flight reservation. In these and other cases, there are preferred platforms popular enough that people bypass Google and search engines, going straight to these platforms to find what they want and need. A few dominant higher education platforms like this could be powerful, but again, only if they don’t contribute to the higher education wars, which likely means that their primary source of revenue is not via advertising. I, for example, would love to partner with Amazon, LinkedIn, Facebook or another such place to build something like this right into their platform, but with that important non-ad proviso in place. It could make sense for a storefront like Amazon as this would get them more site traffic, lead to selling resources related to education, but they could still protect the actual education platform from the ad wars problem.

These are a couple of initial thoughts, but I see several other potential ways to get at it as well.

With the Trump administration looking to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, is it possible that they will attempt to address this issue? They seem to be focused on outcomes, and marketing certainly does not drive outcomes.

I see serious problems with an outcomes-driven approach. Outcomes are only one of many important factors for people when they join a learning community or pursue a degree. Educational choices are driven by beliefs, values, philosophies, affiliations and much more. Any policy or solution that minimizes this actually drives us back to a more industrialized educational model, and risks both dehumanizing and depersonalizing learning. My problem with many outcomes-based policies is that they are almost always too simplistic, too one-size-fits-all or both. I’m more concerned with finding good and mutually beneficial matches between learners and learning communities. The government’s interest may well be mostly in producing a specific and desired workforce as well as to protect the investments (as a result of federal financial aid). I get and respect that to a degree, but there are constant and problematic unintended (or maybe sometimes intended) repercussions to such an approach. In the end, I will vigorously defend the need for a deeply human educational ecosystem that honors a diverse and complex set of goals, beliefs, values and philosophies.

What would you say to a small or mid-size university like the one you represent or the ones that Learning House partners with about marketing in today’s crowded higher education marketplace?

First, do not buy into the idea that there is one tried and true set of methods for getting students, and it involves a very narrow set of digital and traditional marketing strategies. Get creative. Think for yourselves. Seek insights and input from others, but chart your own course. If an outside partner is willing to honor your wishes to do that and work alongside you, that is great. However, start by clarifying your mission and priorities, and make sure that your financial investments align with your mission and priorities. You can’t say you are all about the student experience and then spend half of their tuition on marketing and recruitment, with little to nothing left for investing in the student experience. Look for the road less traveled. Better yet, make some of your own roads.

Here is the analogy I gave when we first sought out possible recruiting partners. We had great success in the past growing our enrollment organically with little to no marketing budget. Then companies came in to market for us asking for massive amounts of money. When I showed what we had achieved in the past, they said that what we were doing was not possible. They couldn’t see beyond their own narrow practices and approaches. Many came from for-profit models that didn’t take the time to learn from some very effective and innovative non-profit practices. In these instances, I would say to the vendors, “So, you are telling me that I should join you and pay $50 for a gallon of milk when I’m doing pretty well and paying $2 a gallon now.” Very few were willing to be humble and creative enough to learn from what was working with us and just help us amplify that. So, what I say to the universities is to not be so quick to believe that $50 a gallon is essential.

Finally, I would say to focus upon who you want to be and what type of distinct education experience you want to create. Don’t take shortcuts on this. Don’t go with cookie cutter models. Be distinct. In business, we might call this a blue ocean strategy. Do what others are not doing, then come up with strategies to connect with students who want that and can benefit from that. Be truly creative and distinct with this and let it really permeate everything that you do from course design to instructor hiring and professional development, student advising to back office support, alumni relations to…fill-in-the-blank. Years ago I did a study of over a hundred innovative and impactful learning organizations, looking for the secret sauce. I came away with 10 consistent attributes but one of them was: They all chose one, two, or at the most, three unavoidable, undeniable school-shaping concepts that permeated everything and everyone. In a crowded market, I believe this is the best strategy. It is also better for students, as it gives them greater choice and more options to find something that matches their distinct needs and goals. Let’s work together to de-factorize higher education, especially online learning.

Are there any examples of universities that do not seem to be caught up in this marketing race, but yet still are able to find growth even as the postsecondary market is in decline? If so, can you share their story?

Concordia University Wisconsin is not a massive school, but we’ve done pretty well historically without a large marketing budget. We do it by building meaningful relationships with partners and prospective students. There is pretty strong regional awareness built up over time so we are on the minds of people when they think about specific programs or goals. Of course, we have much to learn. This is not without a marketing spend, but as most people will say, a good marketing plan amplifies what is already there instead of trying to convince people of something that doesn’t really exist. CUW grew from a few hundred to a few thousand online students in a few years with this simple philosophy, enhanced by a modest marketing spend.

There are many other examples of such schools out there, and they are not on the radar of anyone because they have more modest growth goals. They might be niche but they are serving that niche exceedingly well and it is mutually beneficial.

You talk about creating a robust ecosystem of student/college matchmaking technologies that can reduce the need for and impact of digital advertising. Can you flesh out what this might look like? Was this the intent of the College Scorecard that the Obama administration released a few years back? Can this ever be truly objective? Won’t there always be “cheaters” who find ways to market their schools and programs? 

I will definitely say it is not like the Scorecard. That is a good example of a database that is overly simplistic. Think instead of something that is capable of tracking hundreds of different data points about a person and organization, then allowing the person to manipulate or prioritize different data points to see what sort of matches appear. There could be tons of layers. You could have a College Scorecard layer that limits your search that way if you like, but you could use layers from others or build your own as well. It would allow users to play with searches, for the process to be more transparent, for more power and influence to be in the hands of the learner. It would drive a more demographic approach to algorithmic matching.

You have talked about the Starbucks-ASU deal as a win-win-win. By its nature, this is a marketing deal for ASU as they are providing deep discounts to Starbucks and their employees to attend ASU in exchange for exclusivity and a guaranteed flow of students. I am a big fan of this deal as the cost of the degree is lower for the student without any change in the learning experience; however, this becomes difficult for small universities to compete with, right?

Yes and no. There is plenty to commend with this partnership, but empowering learner choice and voice is not one of them. It comes from the era of “get everyone a degree” and not as much the world that I hope to influence where it is more about helping people reach their goals and potential, and to have agency all along the way. This might not seem like it relates to your question, but there is another story to the partnership. There are plenty of Starbucks employees who go to other schools. Unfortunately, that is not celebrated and supported as well by the employer, as I understand it, even if that other choice is better for the student and even if it better enhances their contribution to the company. Yet, the student saw something that seemed a better fit. This is where we compete. We find the people for whom we are the best fit and then we work like crazy to make what we offer available and accessible to them. That is where our efforts are best spent. Of course, there are plenty of partnerships on the international, national, regional and local level available to any willing university.

Bernard Bull is the Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation at Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor. He is author of Missional Moonshots: Insight and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters? Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He blogs on topics related to education innovation at

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: