The New Era of Higher Ed Recruitment: Transparency Marketing

Daniel Morse
5 min readMar 29, 2022

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Colleges face a two sided challenge

They are hemorrhaging students

And have trouble recruiting them

Most recruitment strategies used by admission teams are archaic — the top 200 institutions often rely mostly on brand and US News rankings. They can neglect marketing efforts. For example, a recruiting webinar for UNC’s public health masters just showed a slideshow of information that was already on the site — and this is the #2 ranked public health school in the country. The rest of institutions follow the same antiquated marketing schemes: mailers, booths at fairs, email blasts.

This low quality communications will eventually bite industry top dogs because competition is becoming more fierce. The digital world has brought a boom of higher ed alternatives, enabling anybody to learn anything anywhere. This competition makes recruiting students even harder. We are already seeing the impacts as a record number of colleges have shut down in the past few years.

Thankfully, this same technology that is disrupting higher education can improve recruitment. Tech can be harnessed to decrease their risk of enrollment and set better program expectations.

Technology unlocks something at unprecedented levels: transparency.

The power of transparency in Marketing

In 13th century England, a revolutionary marketing strategy bubbled up. A poet walked into a tavern and observed something unique. Between the sliding pints of ale, he heard an offer from the taverner. The taverner offered a “tase for nouht” (translated in today’s English to “a taste for nothing”). The poet told this story in his soon-to-be-iconic poem Piers Plowman.

This is one of the first recorded free samples in history. The taverner, like countless shop owners centuries later, used this practice to entice people to try and then buy their product.

Sampling works because it derisks your purchase — you are more certain of what you are getting into. Today, higher education needs to better derisk consumer purchases because going to college has become …. riskier. The variety of higher education options make your choice of a program one of both high potential upside and huge potential downside.

Schools need to mitigate this risk, otherwise prospective students will become flummoxed, caught in an overwhelming amount of options. Should I do a paid program, free course, or start with a bunch of youtube videos? How do I know what is quality?

Most colleges try to help prospective students sample schools. But things like admit weekends are often a rose-colored incomplete taste of the school:

It is hard to sample schools because they are not a traditional product. They are not one experience. They are a series of experiences that are communal, lifestyle, intellectual, social, transformative. You place your trust in a school’s many dynamics — it will be safe, they’ll prepare me for employment, they are selecting for peers like me. College therefore needs a free sample 2.0 … they need to provide transparency.

Transparency provides a view into the multifarious aspects of a school, with more depth and honesty than is typical. Transparency gives students a taste, and like a “freemium” product, essentially onramps them into the institution.

Transparency is the ultimate way to provide prospective students the honest information they need to make their decision.

7 forms of transparency marketing in higher education:

  • Students sit in on an admissions team meeting — invite students to sit in on your admissions team meeting as they discuss applicants. This provides transparency into how the administration evaluates students. It provides insight into the kinds of peers one might expect if they enrolled. Of course, the applicants actual names should be anonymized or changed. This transparency brings confidence that the prospective will fit in.
  • Enable prospective students to talk with actual students, not just paid student staff. This gives students a deeper ability to assess the realities of the school’s culture. You can even provide prospectives restricted access to your school’s online student community portal. This transparency brings confidence that the school culture reflects what is publicly declared.
  • Students sit in on classes or watch recordingsThis transparency creates confidence that the classroom experience is high quality
  • Prospective student influence on administration — within your courting of prospective students, source feedback on their experience through the admissions process. Quickly act on their feedback and notify them of the changes you have made. This transparency brings confidence that the administration is responsive to student needs
  • Publish employment numbers — allow anybody to see statistics on what your students go on to do after graduating. This transparency brings confidence in the school’s ability to help prospectives get hired
  • Publish college financial statementsThis transparency brings confidence in management of school’s resources.
  • Collect better metrics — measure new things like “do you feel you’ve made a best friend for life in this program” or “to what degree are you gaining skills or experiences unique to this school that would be hard to get somewhere else.” These metrics measure things that students actually care about. Collect and report on the measures to prospective students. This transparency shows students how well the school prepares them for things that truly matter.

All of these strategies together create something special — it gives students a sense of personally knowing the staff and administration. Transparency makes everything feel more intimate.

Done properly, students will be equipped to make the best decision — they’d feel trust with the staff, they’d make a group of friends, they could envision the classes they would take.

Conclusion

I spent the past decade as both a marketer and an educator at companies that raised a collective $50M+. I recruited 300k+ teachers to online platforms, 100s of students into learning programs, and built an accredited college from scratch. My role has put me at the intersection of how people both understand and participate in the industry. I’m constantly thinking about how schools position themselves and then deliver on that value. Today, it is clear to me that transparency marketing will be a powerful differentiator. If you don’t do it, a competitor will.

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Daniel Morse

2x Founder. Community Organizer. Educator