January 27

Competing with College Alternatives


Learning is changing. Hundreds of college alternatives now lure your prospective students from the traditional education path. How can you compete? With this enrollment marketer’s secret weapon. 

The explosion of college alternatives is just one of the reasons schools across North America are struggling to hit their enrollment marketing goals. 

(If you haven’t read my article on declining enrollment trends, I recommend you do so before reading this. You don’t have to, but it does give more context.)

Looking at today’s enrollment trends, it’s easy to forget that higher education has had a really good, long run.

At the turn of the 20th century, it was normal to have less than a high school education.

In 1940, more than half of the U.S. population had completed no more than an eighthgrade [sic] education. Only 6 percent of males and 4 percent of females had completed 4 years of college.

120 Years of American Education:  A Statistical Portrait

From 1940 to 1992, the percent of adults with a four year degree more than quadrupled (Figure 4, page 8).

That means in just fifty years, enrollment professionals experienced a 400% increase in higher education enrollment! 

And after that? The trend kept rising.

In 1993, 3.12 million students were enrolled in private higher education institutions. 

These enrollment numbers kept scaling up consistently for the next eighteen years. By 2011, 5.89 million students were studying in private four-year institutions.

But then, enrollment numbers plateaued and began to wane. By 2017, enrollment at private institutions fell to 5.1 million. 

Statista.com forecasts that we’ll stay at this number for a while, but there are no guarantees. 

The growing number of college alternatives available is just one of many reasons for the declining enrollment numbers we’re seeing.

The Rise of College Alternatives

Higher education institutions emerged in the middle ages as a solution to the lack of access to knowledge. 

Before the Gutenberg press, books were hard to come by and expensive. Only the wealthiest kings had libraries in those days.

Thus the university was born. 

A single place where students could come to learn from the greatest minds of their day and read the treasure of books gathered in the university.

Time marched on, and the university grew as literacy and affluence grew. 

After World War II, high school diplomas didn’t take you as far as they used to, so college enrollment began to rise.

Then came the Internet. 

Now, information isn’t sequestered in the halls of higher learning. It’s plastered across millions of websites, both free and paid. 

This gave place for e-learning technologies like Udemy, Skillshare, Teachable, and Lynda.com (which is now part of Microsoft’s LinkedIn ecosystem) to begin gaining “market share” in the education sector. 

These online education platforms offer classes in everything from programming languages to basket weaving. Most of them are quite affordable, and students learn at their own pace and on any Internet-connected device. 

Today, nearly everyone has a university in their pocket.

So how do you compete with the ever-rising number of college alternatives?

Recognize what your audience really wants.

It appears people don’t value higher education institutions like before, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn.

And there are other desires they are looking to fulfill. 

They want security. And by that, I mean they want jobs. 

Almost every family wants to know their child will have the best chance at a prosperous next step on the other side of their degree.

The four-year college experience is expensive in terms of both time and money. They want to know it is the best investment they could possibly make.

They want fulfillment in their work and study.

If you just want information, go to Wikipedia. But that isn’t a fulfilling way to learn.

Learning involves more faculties than the mind. The best students are the ones who have their hearts in the journey, too.

Surrounded by friends and mentors, students can have a full, satisfying educational journey where the knowledge and skills are cemented into them through experiences with others on the journey with them.

They want answers to their questions. 

As I’ve written before, questions are the enrollment marketer’s best friends. 

e-Learning platforms are full of information, but they’re short on answers. 

    • What credentials do I need to make it as an engineer?
    • What classes do I need for a career in social services?
    • How do I learn what I need to make our family farm sustainable well into the future?

These are just a few of the tough questions students bring to their classes. e-Learning just can’t provide these kinds of answers. 

They want flexibility. 

Today’s students are always looking for a way to have their cake and eat it, too. 

And why shouldn’t they? It’s the 21st century! 

Flexibility, control, and options are key to understanding why e-learning is growing so fast.

So how can you compete with e-learning platforms on these things? 

Use Your Secret Weapon

Your secret weapon is you! 

College alternatives cannot compete with the relationships on your campus like these students with their professor.

Your education institution has both features and benefits that these college alternatives cannot touch. 


You’ve been providing your students job security for years, perhaps decades, by giving them the skills they need to stay competitive even in tough job markets.


There is some level of intellectual satisfaction that comes through classes, but personal fulfillment comes through relationships. 

Your school’s campus, events, and the people in your programs provide these fulfilling relationships. 

Even your online study programs offer deeper relationships than e-learning options. College alternatives are largely a direct-to-consumer kind of product without a learning community. 

e-Learning can’t compete with the community you provide! 


I made some of the biggest decisions of my life while studying in a private university – and I benefited a lot from the personal and professional advice I received from both faculty and staff. 

e-Learning just can’t offer that.


This may come as a surprise, but your school is much more flexible than any e-learning platform. Most of those platforms only offer one way of teaching, one way of interacting with students. 

But you not only have various ways to interact with students, you have multiple means of study, payment, financial aid, locations, schedules, majors, internships, etc. 

There is much more flexibility with you!

You’ve Got a Bigger Advantage than You Think

The rich social life and sense of connectedness that your school has to offer simply cannot be understated. 

So do everything you can to market your secret weapon – you

Your educational institution is your greatest competitive advantage. Your unique education brand can’t be duplicated by these college alternatives.

Use videos, use testimonials, use pictures, use case studies.

Publish white papers, ebooks, and infographics all showcasing the incredible value that a four-year degree on a campus like yours has to offer.

Tell them about the mentorships they’ll experience, the research projects they can participate in, and the internship opportunities available. 

College alternatives simply can’t compete with you in the ways that matter most to prospects.

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Featured image by Blue Planet Studio via Adobe Stock
Teacher image by sebra via Adobe Stock

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