Selling the value of higher ed
A father tells his high school senior son about his amazing time in college. He laughs out loud as he shares the details of his experiences. He passionately talks about the friends he made and the best spots to go on campus. After this long-winded trip down memory lane, the son finally interrupts him with a perplexed look on his face. He looks him in the eye and says, “Dad, you had some amazing experiences at school but do you think COVID has ruined my chances of creating my own stories?”
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on all of our lives and higher education is not immune. The next generation, Gen Z, was already placing a great amount of value on emerging at a time when authentic experiences matter. While most of the Gen Z population has yet to truly define themselves, a lot of people, regardless of age, are tired of the constancy of technology and the sharing of every waking moment. We are all hungry for the kind of memories that belong just to us.
Chris Childers, Director of Marketing for North Park University, says, “For the Gen Z audience, authentic means being truthful, relevant and true to the lives they and their peers are living. Anything that appears fake or inauthentic is to be avoided. Only credible recommendations from friends or influencers are trusted.” The next generation was already craving unique stories.
But COVID-19 has changed some things and has accelerated questions around the value of higher education. Many institutions are facing more scrutiny and skepticism. Some polls have shown that people are curious about the cost-benefit analysis of college within the current landscape. According to Jay Blanton, CCO at the University of Kentucky, “In a time of heightened anxiety and insecurity—as is the case during the pandemic—those concerns, and to some degree that skepticism, is understandably heightened and deepened.”
At the University of Kentucky, a flagship and land-grant institution, they have made access to school a top priority. Their research underscores the importance of addressing unmet financial need as it is likely the chief impediment to student success. In fact, they shifted their financial aid and scholarships in a substantive way to address this seminal issue.
Blanton believes that COVID-19 has simply increased the need to meet challenges that already existed for this generation of students. He says, “COVID is an accelerant—it accelerates and amplifies both challenges and opportunities. Add to that, with respect to higher education specifically, families know how important a degree is as a ticket to lifelong economic security. As costs rise, or as questions about access and affordability have increased, so too have concerns increased about higher education.”
This emerging generation is an empowered group not easily swayed by the status quo. Therefore, colleges and universities need to have a different approach to recruit Gen Z students. Higher education enrollment specialists need to cultivate the possibility for the kids to have an authentic and unique experience now more than ever. Childers says, “The Gen Z audience has developed a low tolerance for corporate advertising. Ads, in their opinion, are skippable. To reach Gen Z, colleges will need to create authentic experiences.”
Based on the characteristics of Gen Z, the pandemic, and the financial pressure, colleges and universities may want to pivot from a static message to one that journeys with the student—in order to be more authentic—moving to content that is dynamic and targeted to the individual student’s interests and needs.
Cost and safety concerns affect students’ decisions more than ever. Economic insecurity has left many families questioning whether they can afford higher education. And families and students, alike, want to know that an institution is doing all it can to ensure safety. Julie Balog, CMO at the University of Kentucky says, “Safety is multi-dimensional. It is, to be sure, physical safety and health. But it is also emotional well-being and mental health that matters. Students need a sense of belonging and acceptance, too.”
So what can schools do to send the right message in this foggy climate? Students and their parents want to get an idea of what the return on investment will be when they arrive on campus. As parents send the people they care most about to school, it is incumbent upon the institutions to deliver safety, authenticity, and value all at once.
According to Balog, “The promise of higher education is so central to the American Dream: everyone can get ahead as a result of their potential and hard work. We honor that promise when we provide real value—the education and experience students receive on our campus—for the investment that families make with us.”
For all institutions of higher education, transparency and candor will be critical going forward. People understand that there are more unknowns than knowns. Therefore, they demand that schools be explicit with them. Blanton advises, “When things change, explain why they changed. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it quickly, apologize and move forward. Use language that is plain and straightforward.”
Marketing finds itself at the forefront of helping schools connect with Gen Z. In turn, marketing must put itself in the mindset of students, families, policymakers and donors. As content takes the lead in marketing, it follows that stories are important to Gen Z. But heed Childers’ advice when he says, “Since authenticity is important, a relatable personal source is critical.”
There is nothing unique in the social world anymore and Gen Z was not as willing to share prior to COVID-19. So, schools must observe the tools they use and make sure that trust is paramount.
The true value of higher education is being challenged. But, it is still the cornerstone to a bright future. Tomorrow’s innovators, creators, leaders and public servants will still emerge from our campuses. Balog eloquently states, “We are the public servants whose work changes lives and transforms communities. We have our challenges. We are not perfect. But higher education remains a jewel in the American experiment that is still unrivaled for its quality and impact around the world. As marketers, we need to understand that responsibility—the responsibility of communicating about that value and what we mean to the future.”