It’s no secret that higher education is in trouble. GenZ continues to question the value of a four-year degree. And with so many alternative education options readily available, who could blame them? Now, more than ever, it’s essential for your institution to Stand Apart and Above™ in this saturated market.
No more half-hearted campaigns about “finding your purpose,” “your journey starts here,” or “equipping future leaders.” Prospective students need something deeper, more meaningful, something real.
It’s not just about getting attention, it’s about buy-in (both internal and external). And above all, it’s about human connection. So, what does this look like for you? We’ll walk you through the five essential elements you need to build a solid, memorable, meaningful, human-centered brand in the world of higher education.
1. Knowing your right-fit student
Yes, you have many audiences: current students, prospective students, prospective families, grad students, staff, faculty, alumni, donors, etc. We get it. But all of those folks have one thing in common: your right-fit student.
Your right-fit student is the one that thrives, evolves, and flourishes during and even after their time at your institution. The one that embodies your mission and values. Knowing who they are and what they want out of their education are essential to who you are. When you begin to attract and retain the right-fit students, you’ll also naturally attract other audience members as well — sometimes staff or faculty, alumni, donors, and prospective families.
2. Establishing key messaging and brand pillars
A strong brand strategy focuses on creating a core message that accurately and effectively communicates the values of your institution across multiple channels while staying consistent throughout all materials presented both externally and internally.
Your institution has something completely unique to offer its right-fit student. You just need to identify it. Why do students choose you over other places? What is it that really draws them in? Oftentimes, you don’t have one particular thing that is completely unique to you; rather, it’s a culmination of several things that will make you the “dream school” for that right-fit student.
When your institution begins to uncover what really makes you unique in your market and you know the needs and wants of your right-fit student, you can craft a message and image that accurately reflects who you are as an institution.
3. Creating an emotional connection
Unveiling who you really are creates an emotional connection. We see this happen over and over again with the colleges and universities we partner with here at Up&Up. Taking the time to remember where you came from, acknowledging what needs to be changed, embracing your “quirks,” and leaning into the challenge of growing are all emotional things.
Your right-fit students don’t need you to be perfect, they need you to be honest. GenZ is dubbed “the loneliest generation.” And we’d venture to say that it’s not because of the Internet, but rather the lack of authenticity in what is constantly being pushed in front of them. Emotional connection, the real kind, is what makes the difference between your school and the others. Creating this type of connection will not only attract your right-fit student, it will resonate with them and allow them to see themselves as a part of your community.
4. Leveraging technology
This seems to be stating the obvious, but you’d be surprised at how underutilized technology is in higher education. How do you expect to be found if you’re not in the right spaces? There are so many different ways to reach your audiences, and relying on brochures and mailers alone is an ancient and ineffective effort.
Whether you’re using digital marketing, SEO content, email campaigns, or social media, it’s all about leveraging the tools you have in order to get in front of and make that emotional connection with your right-fit students. Figure out where they’re spending their time and engage with them there.
5. Quality content creation
When it comes to content creation, it’s quality over quantity. This last piece is a culmination of all four points that we mentioned above. Quality content speaks to your right-fit student, is rooted in who you are as an institution, is emotionally appealing, and strategically leverages technology.
Quality content isn’t constantly talking about your national rankings or showcasing the award-winning work of your students, faculty, and staff. Sometimes quality content is an iPhone photo of the sunset over one of your historical buildings or a video of a professor goofing off in the classroom with their students. Quality can be simple; and oftentimes, it’s the most simplistic message that speaks the loudest.
The realm of higher education is saturated with two types of institutions: those who are white-knuckling everything, not willing to acknowledge mistakes or embrace change, and those who are sacrificing who they are in attempts to keep up with the culture shift. It may seem daunting to try balancing who you are with the ever-changing landscape of a four-year college education, but take heart — there’s so much uncharted territory to explore!
There’s room for your institution to celebrate who you are and what you stand for, and even more opportunity to invite others into that community. It’s not easy, but it will change the trajectory of your institution drastically.
Are you willing to take on the challenge?