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The History and Status of Marketing Higher Education

May 20, 2009


This is Part Two of a series called, Marketing in the Wonderful and Wacky World of Higher Education.

UCLA spends $1.2 million on an advertising campaign targeted to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and the University of California system sets aside $4 million for a campaign to get the word out about the value of all the UC campuses. When questioned, a strategist for the UC President says,

“Marketing is not a dirty word.”

Wow. In just six words, the UC President’s office has summed up the history and status of marketing higher education; which leads me to title Part Two of Marketing in the Wonderful and Wacky World of Higher Education:

Marketing Used to be a Dirty Word. Now It’s a Necessary Evil.

In higher education it’s the faculty who hold the political power, or think they should. Historically, faculty members in the arts and sciences–the core of the university–are the ones who have had that power. They ruled absolutely when the academy was about a liberal arts education, not professional preparation; when a liberal arts education was an end to itself, preparing one for life. Colleges and their faculty held an attitude of “teach it and they will come.” There was little concern about market because there were plenty of students, especially with the GI Bill. But things began to change.

Over the years, because of societal changes and the increasing cost of a college education, professional preparation invaded universities, and liberal arts educational ideals were relegated to the core curriculum. Competition increased for sometimes dwindling numbers of prospective students, and colleges began to tap into marketing activities. Glossy viewbooks and videos became the norm; enrollment management began as a profession.

Now, competition on all levels is fierce, and marketing and branding activities are considered normal at universities. But these activities still aren’t always held in high regard by the academy which is by nature very slow to change.

It might be said that marketing is to faculty what American Idol may be to Kanye West: beneath him, but necessary to launch his new album. But this attitude raises issues of control. Faculty may see the need for marketing, but their beliefs about higher education (it’s their brand), coupled with their skepticism regarding marketing, may lead to policies and procedures requiring signficant input into marketing and branding decisions. On some campuses, this means committee approvals.

An internal marketing environment like this creates a need for a strong marketing leader who is able to help the university find its brand and to refine its marketing activities; define for the campus what marketing is (see earlier post, Marketing. It’s More Than Promotion); and help the institution develop a market perspective throughout the university. Importantly, it requires a marketing leader to create positive faculty relationships in order to successfully collaborate and navigate university systems.

The UC strategist was right. Marketing is no longer a dirty word. But because of its history and power structures, higher education remains a challenging profession for marketing leaders.

UPDATE (April 15, 2010): From The Chronicle of Higher Education – How Are Professors Like Cats? Let Me Count the Ways.

Part One of the series: Shared Govenance. Management is not strictly top-down.

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