Every industry seems to be focused on the best way to connect with Generation Z/centennials, and higher education arguably has the most at stake in this equation.


Enrollment numbers have been on the decline over the past eight years, and the public’s overall confidence in the system appears to be dwindling. As if the landscape in higher education marketing couldn’t get any more challenging, a new issue is contributing to even more consumer apathy and distrust: the 2019 college admissions scandal.

The staggering allegations in the admissions scandal take the “privilege factor” to a completely different level. The fallout includes arrests, offending institutions in crisis mode, and most likely an increase in consumer distrust and disenfranchisement in the entire system.

Higher education already had a problem on its hands. Not only is enrollment down – dropping nearly 9% since 2011 according to the Nation Student Clearinghouse Research Center – but competition for student recruitment is stiff, and only getting worse. A 2018 Gallup poll indicated that less than half (48%) of American adults have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, a 9% drop in the past three years. No other industry saw as sharp a decline from 2015 to 2018.

There are a variety of theories on what’s behind this trend, but no matter the cause, the 2019 admissions scandal will certainly not help ease the skepticism of students. Prospective students want brands they can trust and schools that are making a positive difference in society.

During the 2018 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, Kate Turkcan, vice president and head of youth insights at Kantar Consulting, reported that 72% of centennials believe that brands play an important role in society and are responsible for making it better. In addition, 86% of this generation say they appreciate when companies make their values clear. Read more about our take on Gen Z’s relationship with brands here. Now more than ever, branding is vitally important for colleges and universities.

How can higher education institutions attract applicants given that the pool is shrinking and consumer confidence is on the decline? Not only do their brands need to stand out in this highly competitive market, but they also need to be authentic. An institution’s “brand truth” needs to go far beyond a tagline and strong visual identity. Although important, that’s the tip of the iceberg. The foundational strength comes from these commonsense but critical commitments. Here’s the advice we give to colleges and universities:

  1. Know what makes you unique.
    Know and articulate what you truly stand for and what it means to the community at large. Then tell your story in a compelling way.
  2. Turn stakeholders into storytellers.
    For this to really work and sustain itself over time, students, faculty, and staff all must believe your story, buy into it, live by it, and love it. The story not only needs to be authentic, but it also needs to be told in a common language that everyone can understand and share.
  3. Do as you say. 
    Integrity means being true to your word. It means people know what it means to “live” your brand truth. Who you are and why you exist should be expressed through every communication and interaction in a way that is meaningful.

The bottom line? Be thoughtful about the employer brand you develop, make sure it’s communicated effectively, and keep your eye on the prize. The road to finding the right talent isn’t what it used to be, to be sure, but it is achievable. And if done right, could prove to be more effective in driving your organization’s success than ever before.

Need help identifying and promoting what makes your organization unique? Get in touch; we’d love to have a conversation.