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Higher Education Branding: 12 Strategies to Prove Your Institution’s Value to Tomorrow’s Students (w/ Examples)

The landscape of higher education is changing fast. Students are asking tough questions about whether going to college is worth it. They’re looking at the high costs and wondering what they’ll really get in return. This skepticism is a challenge for colleges and universities, which now have to work harder to show the value of the education they offer.

And the hill is only getting steeper. In a 2023 Statista study, Gen Z adults were split about 50/50 about whether college is “a smart investment in the future” or “more of a gamble that may not pay off in the end.” And a New York Times podcast put it this way: “New research and polling show that more and more Americans now doubt a previously unquestioned fact of U.S. life — that going to college is worth it.”

This is where smart branding comes into play. Colleges and universities today need to tell a compelling story about what makes them different and why their education is worth the investment. A good branding strategy doesn’t just talk about academic programs; it connects with prospective students on an emotional level, showing the real-life impact of getting a degree.

In this guide, we’re going to break down how higher education institutions can use branding to effectively communicate their value. We’ll share 12 practical tips for standing out in a crowded market and proving to students that pursuing an education will pay off, not just in terms of a diploma, but in preparing them for a successful future.

Understanding Prospective Students in 2024

The pool of prospective students in 2024 is more diverse and complex than ever before. To effectively connect with them through branding, it’s crucial to understand who they are, what they’re looking for, and the challenges they’re facing. Here’s a closer look at the current landscape:

Demographic Shifts and Their Impact on Student Populations

Today’s students come from various backgrounds and life stages, making the one-size-fits-all approach to education and marketing outdated. Notably, higher education marketers are now facing a phenomenon known as the “demographic cliff” or the “enrollment cliff.” Caused by a combination of declining birth rates and other demographic shifts, the enrollment cliff predicts a decline in the traditional college-age population of about 15% between 2025 and 2029. This shift is likely to pose significant enrollment challenges for some higher education institutions, most notably residential undergraduate schools in regions hardest-hit by population loss.

Another significant trend is the shift toward more non-traditional students. As of 2022, more than 47% of people entering college were over 25 years old, and 40% were older than 35, according to the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education. This includes adult learners looking to upskill or change careers, international students seeking global education experiences, and online learners who need flexibility. Traditional high school graduates heading straight to college are now a smaller part of a broader, more diverse student body.

The Evolving Mindset Regarding the Cost vs. Benefit of Higher Education

According to a recent article in the Journal of Marketing and Business Research, cost is a huge concern for today’s students. With rising tuition fees and student debt in the headlines, prospective students are doing the math carefully. They’re not just looking at the price tag of education; they’re weighing it against the potential return on their investment in terms of career opportunities, earning potential, and personal growth. This cost-benefit analysis is a big part of their decision-making process.

Key Concerns of Various Student Groups

1. Undergraduates are often concerned about the traditional college experience — balancing academics with social life and extracurriculars. They also think about job prospects post-graduation. In addition, parents are more likely to play a major role in the undergraduate decision-making process.

2. Graduate Students look for specific research opportunities, the expertise of faculty, and the professional network they can build. They’re more career-focused and seek direct value from their education.

3. Online Learners need flexibility and support. They value the ability to fit education into their existing schedules and the structure that keeps them engaged and progressing toward their goals without feeling isolated.

4. Adult Learners often juggle education with work and family commitments. They seek streamlined, relevant programs that provide immediate value in their current careers or pathways to new opportunities.

Understanding these diverse audiences is the first step in developing brand messaging that resonates and connects. Each group has unique needs and motivations, and addressing them directly can make your institution stand out as a place that not only understands their concerns, but is equipped to meet them head-on.

Why Is Branding Important in Higher Education?

In a world where prospective students are bombarded with options, your institution’s brand is what can set you apart. It’s more than logos and taglines; it’s about the stories you tell and the experiences you promise. Here’s how branding can power up the appeal of your higher education institution:

Defining Your Institution’s Brand Value

Before you can communicate your value to others, you need to clearly define it for yourself. What makes your institution unique? Is it your cutting-edge research facilities, commitment to social change, exceptional student support, or innovative teaching methods? Identifying and embracing your unique selling points is the first step to building a powerful brand.

Higher Education Branding as Storytelling: Crafting a Narrative That Resonates

People connect with stories far more than they do with facts or statistics. Your institution’s branding should weave a narrative that speaks to the hopes, dreams, and needs of your prospective students. Successful higher education branding tells a compelling story of how the institution can help students achieve their goals, transform their lives, and make a difference in the world.

The Role of Branding in Distinguishing Your Institution in a Competitive Market

In a crowded marketplace, a strong brand cuts through the noise and grabs attention. It communicates what you stand for and promises a specific kind of experience that resonates emotionally with your target audience. This connection is what will make your institution memorable and desirable, driving inquiries and applications.

Effective branding is about consistently communicating your value across all touchpoints with prospective students. It’s present in your advertising, your campus tours, your website, and every piece of content you produce. Each interaction is an opportunity to reinforce your brand story and deepen the connection with your future students.

In essence, the power of branding in higher education lies in its ability to not just attract attention, but to engage hearts and minds, creating a lasting impression that motivates action. By clearly defining what makes your institution special, crafting a narrative that connects on a personal level, and distinguishing your offerings in the market, you can leverage branding to convincingly demonstrate the transformative value of the education you provide.

12 Actionable Ways to Prove the Value of Your Higher Ed Institution Through Branding (w/ Examples)

To effectively showcase the value of your higher education institution in 2024, it’s essential to provide clear, tangible evidence that resonates with your target audiences. Let’s explore several actionable strategies to achieve this:

Focus on Outcomes

1. Share Success Stories and Data on Graduate Outcomes

Prospective students want proof that their education will lead to success. By highlighting the accomplishments of your alumni and sharing data on job placements, salary statistics, and other positive outcomes, you can provide convincing evidence of the real-world value of your education.

Example: University of San Diego Online Master of Science in Applied Data Science

This Vital client features a logo scroll of high-profile businesses and institutions where graduates have found work.

Logos of institutions where graduates of the USD Online Master of Science in Applied Data Science work.

2. Highlight Career Advancement and Satisfaction Among Alumni

Testimonials and case studies featuring alumni who have advanced in their careers or are particularly satisfied with their educational experience can be powerful. These stories add a personal touch and make the outcomes more relatable.

Example: University of Cincinnati Online

Another Vital client, University of Cincinnati Online, makes alumni success stories a prominent part of their homepage experience.

A Black man with a beard and glasses wearing a white coat and stethoscope overlaid with a quote about his success as a University of Cincinnati Online alum.

Amplify Student and Faculty Voices

3. Leverage Testimonials and Case Studies

Encourage current students and faculty to share their stories. What makes your institution unique from their perspective? These authentic voices are incredibly persuasive to prospective students.

Example: University of San Diego Online Master of Science in Applied Data Science

In another example from USD Online, this program page includes video testimonials from satisfied students.

https://youtu.be/KDEqWYqPEsI?si=1ulZZxhgs9jDe5pV

4. Showcase Diverse Experiences and Viewpoints

Diversity in experiences and viewpoints shows prospective students that your institution values a broad range of perspectives. It also illustrates that students from various backgrounds can find a home and succeed at your institution.

Example: Semester at Sea

Vital client Semester at Sea devotes their Diversity and Inclusion page to highlighting the experiences of students of diverse identities and backgrounds.

Highlight Unique Programs and Opportunities

5. Emphasize Innovative Programs, Research Opportunities, and Partnerships

Show off what makes your academic offerings stand out. Are there unique research opportunities, partnerships with industry, or innovative programs? Make these a central part of your branding narrative.

Example: University of Florida

The University of Florida is well-known for its deep connections with a wide variety of industry partners. They’re not shy about making this a prominent part of their brand — so much so that their homepage hero (often the very first thing a website visitor will encounter) touts a federal grant program aimed to develop new nuclear forensic technologies.

A screenshot of the University of Florida homepage showing an Asian woman looking into a microscope with text about the University’s Consortium for Nuclear Forensics.

6. Promote Specialized Resources Available to Students

Whether it’s state-of-the-art facilities, student support services, or extracurricular clubs, promoting specialized resources can help students see the tangible benefits of choosing your institution.

Example: University of Cincinnati Online Veteran Success Program

As one of only three higher education institutions in Ohio to participate in the innovative Yellow-Ribbon program to support military veterans, Vital client University of Cincinnati Online features military support services prominently in their website’s main navigation.

A website screenshot from the University of Cincinnati Online highlighting the school’s military veteran support program.

Strengthen Your Online Presence

7. Use Social Media, SEO-driven Blogs, Paid Media, and Email to Share Valuable Content

Your online presence is often the first point of contact for prospective students. Engaging content that adds value can help to grab their attention and keep your institution top-of-mind.

Example: University of San Diego Online

At Vital we’ve had great success with our client University of San Diego Online by creating valuable, search-optimized blog content — and then including early-stage lead generation offers that relate to those blog topics. This content can (and should) also be promoted via social media, paid digital advertising, and email campaigns.

Screenshots showing three career-focused blog posts and a related lead-generation offer.

8. Emphasize Interactivity and Engagement with Prospective Students

Don’t just broadcast; engage. Use your social media and marketing platforms to start conversations, answer questions, and build a community around your institution’s brand.

Example: Southern New Hampshire University

SNHU does a lot right when it comes to marketing — and that includes empowering current and former students to interact with prospects directly on social media, including TikTok.

A screenshot of a TikTok video showing a Black woman responding to a follower’s comment asking about her experience as an SNHU student.

Build Community Through Values

9. Communicate Core Values and Mission

Prospective students are often looking for institutions that share their values. Make your institution’s mission clear, and show how it’s brought to life on campus.

Example: Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

Part of this medical school’s mission centers around promoting equitable outcomes in healthcare, and they dedicate a prominent section of their homepage to the impact of a specific research program.

A Black woman doctor wearing a mask assesses a Black woman patient wearing a mask, with text describing a program to research Alzheimer’s disease in the African American community.

10. Showcase Involvement in Social Causes and Community Service

If your institution is involved in community service or social causes, make sure this is known. Many students want to be part of a community that makes a difference.

Example: Creighton University

Creighton University is founded on Jesuit values, and messaging about their dedication to service in their community abounds on their website.

A screenshot of the Creighton University homepage, with the headline, “Whatever you do today, do it justice.”

Leverage Data-Driven Marketing Strategies

11. Customize Messaging Based on Data Insights

Use data to understand your prospective students and tailor your messaging to meet their needs and address their concerns.

Example: University of San Diego Online

In the many years that USD Online has been a Vital client, we’ve gathered a tremendous amount of data about what prospective students care about, based on site traffic, resource downloads, conversion rates, and more. It all boils down to a strong focus on career advancement, which is why that’s the primary focus of the school’s brand messaging.

A smiling woman in a cap and gown with the headline: Your Future, Career-Focused Master’s Degree Programs.

12. Use Predictive Analytics for Understanding and Anticipating Student Needs

By analyzing data patterns, you can predict the needs and behaviors of prospective students, allowing you to proactively address their concerns and highlight aspects of your institution that will be most appealing to them.

Example: University of San Diego Professional and Continuing Education

The University of San Diego’s school of Professional and Continuing Education offers courses and certificates for working professionals looking to advance or make a career change. Their offerings are strongly influenced by predictive data on both student demand and workforce needs, maximizing the value and relevance of their brand.

The USD PCE homepage showing a list of business certificates available to prospective students.

Implementing these strategies requires a deep understanding of your audience and a commitment to authentic, meaningful communication. By delivering clear, compelling evidence of the value of your institution’s offerings and creating a brand narrative that resonates deeply with prospective students, you can successfully showcase the transformative potential of your educational experiences.

Measuring the Impact of Your Higher Education Branding Efforts

In the dynamic sphere of higher education marketing, establishing a robust brand is only part of the journey. Measuring the impact of your branding efforts is crucial to understand what resonates with your audience and where there’s room for improvement. Here’s how to track and refine your branding strategy:

Implement Tools and Metrics for Tracking Branding Effectiveness

Website Analytics

Use tools like Google Analytics to monitor how potential students interact with your website. Pay attention to metrics like page views, time spent on site, and the conversion rates of specific calls-to-action (CTAs). You should also track brand mentions and direct search volume (the number of searches that include your institution’s brand name directly). This data can show you what content is most engaging and which areas might need tweaking.

Paid Digital Advertising Data

Brand lift will be reflected in improved paid advertising click-through rates and conversion rates at each stage of the enrollment funnel. Investing in your institution’s brand will boost:

  • Web traffic to leads
  • Leads to application initiations
  • Application initiations to submitted applications
  • Accepted student rate
  • Accepted to enrolled student ratios

Social Media Engagement

Track likes, shares, comments, and follows on your social media platforms. High engagement rates are a good indicator that your content is resonating with your audience. Tools like Sprout Social or Hootsuite can help consolidate and analyze your social media metrics.

Email Open and Click-Through Rates

When you send out newsletters or promotional emails, tracking how many people open and engage with these emails can provide insights into how compelling and relevant your messaging is.

Survey Feedback

Surveys and feedback forms can be invaluable. Ask your current students, alumni, and prospective students for their honest opinions about your brand messaging and what they find most valuable.

Continuous Improvement through Feedback Loops and Market Research

Act on Feedback

Collecting data and feedback is only useful if you act on it. Use the insights you gather to make informed adjustments to your branding and marketing strategies.

Stay Informed About Market Trends

Higher education is always evolving, and so are student expectations. Keep an eye on trends and changes in the market through continuous research. This can help you anticipate shifts in what prospective students value and proactively refine your brand accordingly.

A/B Testing

Frequently test different messages, visuals, and strategies to see what works best. A/B testing can be applied to nearly every aspect of your marketing, from email campaigns to webpage layouts. This method allows for data-driven decisions that can systematically improve your brand’s appeal and effectiveness.

Set and Review Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

Identify specific, measurable goals related to your branding and marketing efforts. These might include increasing application rates, growing your social media followers, enhancing website traffic, or improving your Net Promoter Score (NPS). Regularly review these KPIs to assess whether your strategies are moving you in the right direction and to identify areas for improvement.

Measuring the impact of your branding is an ongoing process. It requires a blend of the right tools, a commitment to listening to your audience, and flexibility to adapt your strategies based on what the data tells you. By taking a data-driven approach to your branding efforts, you can ensure that your institution not only stands out but deeply connects with prospective students in a meaningful way, ultimately driving enrollment and fostering a strong, vibrant community.

Future-Proofing Your Higher Education Brand

In the fast-paced world of higher education marketing, staying relevant and top-of-mind for prospective students requires not just adaptability but also a forward-thinking approach. Here’s how you can ensure your institution’s brand remains resilient and appealing, even as the landscape continues to evolve:

Adapting to Changing Perceptions and Expectations

Understanding Generation Z and Beyond

Keep abreast of the values, communication preferences, and educational expectations of emerging generations. With each new class of students, these dynamics shift, often requiring updates to messaging and marketing channels to remain effective and relatable.

Embracing Technological Advancements

Technology continues to revolutionize how students learn and engage with institutions. Virtual reality tours, AI-driven personalization, and interactive online experiences are becoming the norm. Incorporating these technologies into your branding and recruitment strategies can demonstrate your institution’s commitment to innovation and excellence.

Fostering a Culture of Inclusivity

As societal views on diversity, equity, and inclusion evolve, it’s critical for institutions to reflect these values in their branding. Showcasing your commitment to creating an inclusive and supportive community can resonate deeply with prospective students looking for a welcoming educational environment.

Staying Ahead of Trends and Innovations in Digital Marketing

Investing in Continuous Learning

The digital marketing landscape is ever-changing, with new platforms, algorithms, and user behaviors emerging regularly. Stay informed about these changes through ongoing education and by participating in higher education marketing networks or forums.

Experimenting with New Platforms and Formats:

Don’t be afraid to try new things. Whether it’s a new social media platform popular with younger audiences or an innovative content format like augmented reality (AR) experiences, experimenting can help you discover what captures the attention of prospective students.

Leveraging Data for Decision Making

As the amount of available data grows, so does the importance of analytics in shaping marketing strategies. Use data to predict trends, understand student needs, and tailor your offerings. This proactive approach can keep your institution ahead of the curve.

Building Long-Term Relationships

Engaging Alumni and Current Students

Strengthening connections with your alumni and current students can turn them into brand ambassadors. Their positive experiences and success stories are powerful testimonials to the lasting value of your institution.

Creating Lifelong Learning Opportunities

As the concept of education shifts towards lifelong learning, offering continued education opportunities can keep your institution relevant to individuals at all stages of their careers. This approach can help cultivate a lasting relationship with your audience.

Cultivating a Community Around Your Brand

Beyond academic offerings, create a sense of community and belonging around your brand. Facilitating forums, social groups, and networking opportunities can ensure that your institution remains a pivotal part of students’ lives long after graduation.

Future-proofing your brand in higher education isn’t just about staying current; it’s about leading the charge towards a brighter, more inclusive, and innovative future. By embracing change, anticipating trends, and committing to continuous improvement, your institution can maintain its appeal and relevance, ensuring it remains a preferred choice for prospective students for years to come.

The Path Forward for Higher Education Branding

As we’ve explored the multifaceted landscape of higher education branding in 2024, it’s clear that the challenges ahead are matched by immense opportunities. The evolving expectations of prospective students, coupled with rapid technological advancements and shifting societal values, demand a proactive and dynamic approach to branding. Higher education institutions have the potential to deeply resonate with their audiences, not just as places of learning but as communities that empower individuals to achieve their dreams and make meaningful contributions to the world.

The key to success lies in understanding your diverse audience, crafting a compelling and authentic brand narrative, and continuously validating the transformative value of the education you provide. Transparently showcasing outcomes, amplifying the voices of your community, leveraging data-driven insights, and measuring the impact of your efforts are all critical components of a robust branding strategy.

Yet, perhaps the most crucial takeaway is the importance of adaptability and forward-thinking. The landscape of higher education is in constant flux, with new challenges and opportunities on the horizon. Institutions that stay ahead of trends, embrace innovation, and maintain a laser focus on the needs and aspirations of their students will not only thrive, but lead the way in redefining the value of higher education.