The New Freshman

March 01, 2019  

The look of America’s college campuses is shifting. Back in October, I wrote about “The Forgotten 40 percent,” exploring how higher education institutions might better court the growing numbers of adult learners in their marketing and recruitment materials. But adult learners aren’t the only group adding diversity to campuses across the country.

New efforts, like the American Talent Initiative, have been launched to make higher education more accessible, for more people. As institutions aim to attract more high-talent students from low- and moderate-income families, as well as first-generation students, it will be important to understand how recruitment messages and strategies should shift in order to meet the expectations of these newer groups.  

The power of segmentation

Colleges and universities need to reach many different audiences. Between alumni, donors, community leaders, prospects, and so on, it’s a nearly endless list. But there are also subgroups within these basic audience segments, and they require a more nuanced approach than the typical communication flow for 18- to 24-year-olds. What if we could market less from a demographic perspective and more from a community perspective? For example: Metropolitan State University of Denver launched an “I’m First Gen Too” campaign to celebrate this large segment of its campus population. Each faculty or staff member who was a first-generation college student — along with current first-gen students at the campus — was given an “I’m First Gen Too” T-shirt to wear on the first day of classes. Creating a space for community in your recruitment marketing efforts in this area can go a long way in reaching these prospects.  

The power of differentiation

It’s no secret that differentiating one institution from another is a tough task, especially from the vantage point of prospective students. How will these highly talented, low- to moderate-income prospects make their decisions on where to go to school? Part of it will likely be based on how warm the welcome is. In setting your school apart from others, it’s critical to understand the needs of different mindsets on your campus and to communicate that understanding. Paul Quinn College in Dallas hosts an annual Summer Bridge program to help new first-gen students to get acclimated to college life. Do you have innovative programs, courses, or offers that are designed specifically to smooth out the college experience for first-gen students, or those who come from lower-income families? If so, talking about them can be a great way to attracting the attention of these prospects.

The power of families

Parents are just as “prospective” as their children, so why not include them in your marketing strategy? Parents from these new prospect pools need to feel just as special and catered to as every other student and parent. Parents of first-gen students need messaging that meets them where they are, so that they can feel comfortable and informed about the decision they’re helping their child make. Could you develop a suite of pieces or programming specifically for these parents that not only introduces your institution, but also details the variety and depth of supports that will be available to them and their children? The University of Southern California’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative offers local parents a spot in the Family Development Institute, which readies prospective students for college, while working with their parents to help create an academically supportive environment at home.

Bottom line: It’s no longer enough to send the same messages to everyone in your funnel – because the funnel is changing. As campus demographics continue to shift, the messages that feel customized will have the best chance of success. The best higher education marketing strategies combine a strong university brand with fluency in different audience needs to expertly set and address students’ (and parents’!) expectations.

In other words: one message definitely does not fit all.