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August 30

Need to Drive Up Enrollment? Connect College Marketing with What Students Really Want


I can’t think of a better way to amp up your college marketing efforts than to focus your messaging on outcomes.

Outcomes aren’t just part of the narrative about college.

They’re the whole point.

Focusing on outcomes means drawing a straight line from where your prospective student is to where they want to get.

Before you can do this, however, you need to understand what outcomes are really all about. Sometimes we use that term to mean one thing in college marketing, but it can mean so much more.

What “Outcomes” Doesn’t Mean in College Marketing

To your prospects, graduating is not an “outcome.” 

Let me explain.

Those of us who work in the higher education space, and especially education marketers, can easily fall under the “spell” of academia.

We’re enamored with the idea of college. We see and feel tremendous intrinsic value in the educational journey.

As a result, college marketing often focuses on graduation as a theme:

  • Degree-focused language, e.g. “Earn your degree.”
  • Commencement imagery (gowns & mortarboards).
  • Matriculation data, e.g. graduation rates.

It’s not that prospects don’t care about the idea of graduating. My point is that the focus on graduation as an outcome is off the mark. It’s just not enough.

The reality is that nearly half of Americans don’t see college as important.

College as a cultural value in and of itself isn’t the driving force it used to be.

Your savvy prospects increasingly see the college experience not as a must-have coming-of-age experience, but rather as a means to an end.

To connect with them, that’s how you need to present it.

What “Outcomes” Sometimes Means in College Marketing

Imagine this is a classroom. If I asked for a show of hands from everyone who immediately thought “graduate outcomes” when they read the word “outcome” above, would yours be up?

Good. Because that’s definitely part of what we’re talking about here.

Your prospects are asking, “When I’m done with your school, what will I get?”

Your answer needs to be more than, “a job.” That’s just not good enough. Here’s how a couple of schools I’m familiar with are going beyond a job-focus in outcomes messaging.

Ivy Tech Community College

This is one school that wants prospects to know that enrollment is the first step toward a fulfilling career. And they’re clear about what that means: gainful employment.

That’s what Jeff Fanter, VP of marketing and communications for Ivy Tech Community College confirmed when I interviewed him in the spring of 2021.

A job may technically be an outcome, but a career is what prospects really want. As Jeff explained:

“A career is when you can start to support your family, support yourself, support other endeavors that you want to do within your life. A career gives you the means to do that; [whereas] a job gives you an instant satisfaction, what you need right at that moment.”

The ability to support yourself and your family means, to put it bluntly, money. Ivy Tech sees value in putting the topic of money making ability front and center.

Just look at this homepage hero image. It says it all:

Ivy Tech homepage

Western Governors University

I’m quite familiar with WGU, having worked with several teams within the university system on a variety of projects. This is another school that doesn’t beat around the bush.

They’re highly focused on delivering value to students, and the primary measure of that value is the ability of their students to access their career of choice and thrive in it.

It’s clear on their homepage what “delivering outcomes” means: increasing earning potential.

WGU homepage

“Students see an average salary increase of over $12,000 just 2 years after graduation,” it boldly proclaims. Quality, accessible education are the means, and ROI is the point.

What “Outcomes” Also Means in College Marketing

I’m not making the argument that every school can (or should) emphasize the value of their college experience in this way. It’s just not on-brand for everyone.

I work with many small, private colleges for whom presenting college this way would come across as overly transactional. (This is especially true for many Christian colleges.)

This is because the outcomes their ideal student is after are different.

For these schools, messaging needs to tap into deeper desires that are difficult to quantify.

Here are a few examples from schools I’ve worked with over the years.

Antioch College

Changing the world may not be quantifiable, but it’s certainly a powerful outcome. To attract students with big aspirations, Antioch messaging leans heavily into language surrounding individual impact, boldness, and changemaking.

Eastern Nazarene College

Young people want the skills to make it in the “real world,” and many believe that means a big city experience. Language and imagery to emphasize ENC’s proximity to Boston, coupled with frequent use of student testimonials, speak directly to that outcome.

Davis & Elkins College

Others want to develop leadership skills in a setting that’s every bit as real, but with the comfort, beauty and peacefulness of a small campus nestled in the mountains. Gaining those skills in this way, in this place, is an outcome D&E’s messaging is focused on accommodating.

Oakland City University

Many students are driven to overcome obstacles and step up and serve their community. Through testimonials and messaging focused on preparing first-generation students for servant-leadership, OCU is presenting the realization of dreams as a powerful outcome.

To make a difference in the world, master big city life, grow as a leader in a beautiful place, or become a point of light for your community and beyond – these are glimpses into what prospects really want in their heart of hearts.

Start making your college marketing more outcomes-focused today.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with showing your prospects mortarboards and gowns.

It just isn’t exactly what they want. At least, it isn’t all they want.

Your institution of higher ed is a means to an end. That goal is different for every student, but there are some outcomes that your school is uniquely situated to deliver.

If you need help identifying what they are and how to communicate them, my team and I can help. Just reach out anytime for a chat.

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Featured image by Prostock-Studio via Adobe Stock

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