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The Marketing Plan. Navigating Your Way.

April 16, 2009
Downtown LA

Photograph by Caleb Coppola (Flickr)

I often have to travel the freeways in southern California. This comes as no surprise to anyone who lives here. Traveling on So Cal freeways is a challenge. So I do two things.

First, I do my research online to see what’s happening on the freeways since I have route choices to make along the way. Second, I bring all of my years of experience in navigating those highways with me. I know the shortcuts, detours, back roads, etc. in case there’s an accident, or traffic looks to be stop and go for awhile (the norm). Although I will prod along in traffic, I just don’t sit well there taking my lumps. I like to find a creative way out of the situation, if indeed there is another way to get to my destination.

Planning and experience–a required combination for successfully navigating the freeways here in the greater LA area. And a vital combination for leading higher education marketing and enrollment management.

My blog post on April 13 gave the basics on doing marketing plans for a college or university and its programs. Now, here’s one example of how it has worked for me.

Marketing teacher education programs in California during the past decade has been similar to trying to get from point A to point B on southern California freeways. Education deans and marketing directors have had to navigate a turbulent teacher education market impacted by varying market conditions, changing teacher preparation requirements by the state, and demographic losses. For a chief enrollment officer, that creates a challenge to forecast enrollment and revenue numbers for the following year or for years to come.

When I took over as vice president for enrollment management and university advancement for Vanguard University of Southern California in 2001, my team and I began meeting with the dean of the graduate school and the director of the graduate education program to write the marketing plan for the education program.

It was a small program, but growing in a market that was exploding with a need for teachers. The program had an excellent reputation with local school districts, one of which was one of the largest districts in the state. These districts loved our students. Additionally, the program was garnering a reputation as a leader in the state in being among the first to be accredited under new state requirements for teacher credentials. Enrollment rose by 46% to full capacity in two years.  So, it was all good.  For the moment.

Changing state requirements were only part of the market picture.  In the midst of the growth, school districts were authorized by the state to grant emergency credentials to new teachers who had not been through a teacher education program.

Then, the demand for teachers dissipated. The enrollment bubble that was going through our elementary schools was gone. (This is the same group of students that has been fueling enrollment growth at California colleges and universities–referred to as Tidal Wave II–that will exit undergraduate education in 2011.) Added to the end of this enrollment bubble was a movement of young families who were choosing either to leave the state or to move inland away from coastal communities because of cost of living.

Due to thorough planning, all of these changes were anticipated by the director of the grad education program. Thus, we were able to develop promotional strategies to address market shifts, the graduate program could shape their program to meet market needs, and the graduate education director and myself could accurately project enrollment and revenue for the university.

Our journey on that graduate education highway was much like my freeway travels, and it is a great example of teamwork between an academic program and marketing/enrollment management. We planned where we wanted to go, anticipated trouble, and had the experience to make adjustments along the way.  As a result, the program’s enrollment dipped only one year. It held steady overall due to an excellent academic program and smart work by both the academic program and enrollment management/marketing.

Marketing plans aren’t academic exercises. They are collaborative, creative, illuminating and practical.  They are absolutely necessary to be successful in marketing higher education.

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