May 12

Proving the Value of Higher Education by Marketing Outcomes


The hardest thing by far in enrollment marketing is the cost of higher education. But it’s not a money problem as much as it is a problem of perceived value.

It’s a stark reality that the perceived value of higher education has declined in the last few years. 

It might seem like it’s simply an issue of cost, but that is only part of the value equation.

On The Higher Ed Marketer podcast, my co-host, Troy Singer, and I had the privilege of speaking with Terri Giltner, Chief Marketing Officer at Kentucky Community and Technical College System about this issue. 

During our interview, she showed what they are seeing and what they’ve learned from it all.

Decline in Perceived Value of Higher Education

The going wisdom says that community colleges and tech schools don’t have as much of a problem when it comes to convincing prospective students of their value because they’re not as expensive as traditional four-year institutions.

But that doesn’t seem to pan out in reality.

We just finished doing a prospective student research study. It’s a study we do every five years with about 3,000 interviews of traditional students, juniors and seniors in high school and non-traditional students, along with teachers, guidance counselors, and parents. 

[Through this study], we’ve been tracking the value of higher ed since we started the study in 2006. This was the fourth study that we have done, and every year, the perceived value of higher ed has declined. And this last time, we saw the biggest decline. 

What was particularly disturbing is the decline in the perceived value among teachers and guidance counselors, who really are setting the stage for those juniors and seniors coming out. 

This is impacting enrollment all around, and it certainly has impacted community college enrollment. Our enrollment has been down for almost nine years. It really declined during COVID, and it really hasn’t rebounded. 

Based on Terri’s research, the perceived value of higher education has been on the decline for years now among their network of community colleges and tech schools. 

So what does that say? To me, it means that… 

Money isn’t really the issue at all.

If money were the problem for prospective students, you would expect to find many more of them choosing to go to the more economical opportunity. 

That whole value issue – along with the other factors we’re facing in our economy – has just been devastating. And it’s really not just about costs.  

Cost is part of that value equation. It’s about getting a job. 

It particularly impacts the students that enter our doors. They are more interested in the particular skill level they’re going to get which will move them on to a career pretty quickly.

The problem here is that prospective students aren’t seeing the real value being offered.

So what’s the solution?

Link value to outcomes, not the student experience itself.

The key to demonstrating value and driving enrollment numbers back up is linking the return on investment to fulfilling jobs and careers.

About three or four years ago, we switched all our marketing creative and efforts to be more outcome [oriented]. Instead of going on campus and interviewing current students under a tree with books, we are interviewing our alumni and what their career has done for them, not just from a career point of view, but from a whole-life point of view. 

Our brand statement is “We are here to improve the quality of life, to make life better for Kentuckians.” That’s what we’re committed to. 

So we’re trying to show how we’re making our students’ – or former students’ –  lives better. That is the feature in most of our creative and stories that we tell at this point. 

We’ve also changed our web – particularly our program pages, which we know are the first pages that people visit – to be more career focused. Here, visitors can see what the average salary is and what careers are linked to the programs we offer.

We are really trying to get more of our employers engaged in marketing efforts (to say that they employed these students and point out how successful they have been in their careers). 

Most of those students’ stories that we’re doing now where we’re talking to alumni, we interview their employer at the same time. 

We have been doing most of these interviews at their place of employment. I think it’s important that we show [the alumnus] with some kind of background that shows the employer and the career that they have.

In a previous episode with Ivy Tech’s Jeff Fanter, he also stressed how important it is to link the educational offering with career outcomes.

Personally, I would argue that all of higher education should communicate and articulate outcomes.

What is that return on the investment for the student? 

We must start marketing higher education in these kinds of terms and demonstrate the career return on investment and prove it through a variety of methods in our messaging.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Terri Giltner to get even more insights into:

  • The progress made in higher ed marketing
  • The perceived declining value of higher ed and how to combat it
  • How to effectively market outcomes
  • The need to communicate the value of marketing

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