Skip to content
vital-logo Home
8 min read

Complete Guide to Email Marketing for Higher Education: 8 Strategies & Best Practices

an illustration of a desktop computer monitor with 2 books and a graduation cap stacked beside it. overlaid copy says "you've got mail"

For higher education marketers looking to increase applications and enrollments, a solid email marketing strategy is a must. In fact, according to the 2023 E-Expectations Trend Report by RNL email is prospective students’ number one preferred channel for receiving information from colleges and universities. Add that to the report’s finding that prospective students are more willing to give schools their email addresses than any other piece of information, and the opportunity to help meet your school’s enrollment goals through email marketing is clear.

But we all know that inboxes these days are flooded with marketing emails, and most of them get ignored. A recent Hubspot data analysis found that the average open rate for marketing emails sent by educational institutions is 35.4%. That’s below the average open rate of 38.49% across industries. Of the recipients who open higher ed marketing emails, an average of 8.3% click on a link in the email. (That’s called click-through rate, or CTR.) So if you send an email to 100 people, about 35 will open it, and only about three will click through.

So how can your institution beat the averages and improve email open and click-through rates to help drive traffic to your website and ultimately increase your enrollment numbers? We took a look at some data from our higher education clients’ email campaigns to identify what works (and what doesn’t), and we’re here to share some key tips and best practices from our higher ed email marketing playbook. But first, let’s look at what we’re up against.

The Challenges of Higher Education Enrollment Marketing Today

We’ve written quite a bit about declining enrollment numbers in higher education due to a number of factors, including:

All this means that colleges and universities are now competing for fewer students. Add that to generational changes in online behavior and expectations for personalized marketing, and you have a high-stakes landscape where staying current with students’ concerns and communication preferences is harder than ever.

Benefits of Email Marketing for Higher Education Institutions

In this pressured environment, a well-designed email marketing strategy is one of the most effective ways to reach students and keep them engaged with your school throughout their college search process. Here are some of the big benefits of email marketing done right:

  • Full funnel engagement: Build awareness and engagement with top-of-the-funnel (TOFU) leads who aren’t yet ready to apply, and guide prospective students through the college search funnel.
  • Increase Yield: Email is a great way to stay connected with students beyond the application phase to maximize your institution’s yield.
  • Targeted Communication: Emails allow you to segment your audience and send personalized messages to prospective students and parents, increasing the likelihood of engagement.
  • Automation: Email marketing platforms offer automation features that allow you to schedule emails, set up drip campaigns, and trigger responses based on user actions, saving time and effort.
  • Tracking and Analytics: Email marketing provides detailed metrics, including open rates, click-through rates, conversion rates, and more. This data helps you measure the effectiveness of your campaigns and make data-driven decisions.
  • Personalization: Tailoring emails with the recipient’s name and other relevant information creates a personalized experience, increasing engagement and conversion rates.
  • Immediate Communication: Email allows for quick communication with prospective students, making it an ideal medium for sending timely updates, event invitations, or application reminders.
  • Mobile Accessibility: With the majority of emails being read on mobile devices, email marketing ensures your messages are accessible to a wide range of users, including younger audiences.
  • Content Distribution: Share informative content such as blog posts, videos, and infographics that can educate and engage your audience, helping them make informed decisions about enrollment.
  • Brand Building: Consistent and well-designed email campaigns reinforce your institution’s brand and reputation, making it more appealing to potential students.

5 Strategies for Effective Email Marketing for Higher Education

Vital has a decades-long track record of success enabling our higher ed clients to boost their enrollment numbers through email marketing. Here are some key strategies we use to drive results.

1. Build your list!

It goes without saying that you can’t execute a successful email marketing strategy without prospects to send your emails to. When it comes to list-building, we favor quantity over quality — but if you can have both, that’s even better! To grow your email list with qualified prospects, follow these steps:

  • Start by scraping your database for potential list targets. This includes anyone in your CRM who hasn’t enrolled in your school.
  • Use content marketing. Craft content that’s relevant to prospective students (and their parents, if you serve an undergraduate population) and offer it in exchange for an email address.

Pro-tip: Don’t neglect your early-stage leads! Be sure to create plenty of content that appeals to top-of-the-funnel prospects, not just students who are ready to schedule a campus visit or start the application process.

  • Have a newsletter signup on your website.
  • Consider sponsored email blasts. For example, if you offer a Master’s degree in cybersecurity, partner with a cybersecurity publication to send out a blast to their list, including a downloadable content offer in exchange for adding them to your school’s list.

When using lead-gen forms, be smart about the information you ask for. You want to get just enough information to continue to market to prospective students without discouraging them from completing the form. Wondering where to draw the line? The 2023 E-Expectations Trend Report shows that a majority of students are willing to share their email address, name, and cell phone, along with their parents’ or guardians’ contact info.

2. Consider creating an email newsletter

But not just any newsletter! Diversify your content beyond the traditional “all about our school” newsletter by publishing an informative, practical newsletter focused on a subject matter that’s relevant to your audience.

For example, if your institution offers an M.Ed., create email content around topics of interest to practicing teachers. This enables you to both grow your list by offering something useful to a specific audience, and positions your school as a leader for professionals looking to further their careers through higher education.

3. Craft targeted lead-nurture sequences for different stages of the enrollment funnel

For every conversion point, create a sequence of automated emails customized to the piece of content downloaded. Each email in the sequence should be designed to move your prospective student closer to the decision to apply (and ultimately enroll).

For example, let’s suppose you offer a downloadable guide to careers associated with a degree your school offers. Set up an automated email campaign that will go to everyone who downloads the guide. Each email should have a goal CTA that encourages further engagement with your school.

Sticking with this example, the first email you send might include links to blog posts of interest to someone who downloaded your career guide. Follow up with a second email that has what we call a “bridge offer.” This is a second conversion point that moves your early-stage leads further down the funnel. Examples include a virtual open house, an online career fair, alumni Q&A, or a virtual networking event.

If your prospect converts on this bridge offer, it should trigger a new lead-nurture sequence to encourage them to take the next step — for example, setting up a time to talk to an enrollment advisor.

4. Keep Your Prospects in the Know

Send regular updates about things prospective students need to know, including deadlines for applications and financial aid, program information, new offerings, new faculty hires, etc. You can amp up engagement with these “housekeeping” emails by including valuable offers such as scholarships or tuition discounts if they meet a certain application deadline. Luke Phillips, Executive Director of Marketing and Enrollment at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education & Psychology, offers this advice:

“Value plus urgency always equals conversion. The more value and the more urgency, the more conversions.” (Source: Caylor Solutions)

5. Promote Your Content

Assuming your school has a content marketing strategy and calendar, your email list is the perfect place to promote new blog posts, eBooks, virtual events, and other content. Every time you publish a new piece of content, send an email to promote it. The goal is to keep your list engaged, drive traffic back to your site, and generate leads on any gated content you publish.

3 Higher Education Email Marketing Best Practices

Increase your chances of email marketing success by following a few simple rules of thumb.

1. Introduce Yourself

Create one or more emails that automatically send when someone new gets added to your list. These emails should be customized to fit any information you gather about your new list targets. (For example, if you ask what level of degree or program people are interested in, provide information that matches those interests.) Use this opportunity to introduce your institution and make a case for why to apply and enroll.

Joe Picini, Director of Enrollment Marketing at Pratt Institute, has this to say about the importance of getting these emails right:

“Your welcome email — or a series of welcome emails — can help your university make a solid first impression with new prospects. A good first impression in the email world involves introducing new leads to your university’s mission, values, academic programs, offerings, and overall message. Ideally, this should be sent within 24-48 hours after a lead requests information.” (Source: Town Hall)

2. The Sender Matters

Make sure your emails are sent from an individual account, not your institution’s name. Ideally, it should be the same person, to develop trust. The one exception is your subject-matter newsletter. The sender can be the title of your newsletter. (So make sure you have a good title!) Sign off with an email signature that matches the sender to reinforce the personalized feel.

3. Make It Easy to Reply

Don’t use a no-reply email account. People should be able to follow up with questions and comments by simply replying to your emails. In our experience, email replies are often the best kinds of leads.

How to Measure the Success of Your Higher Ed Email Marketing Strategies

The beautiful thing about digital marketing for higher ed — including email marketing — is that, with the right tools and processes in place, it’s easy to quantitatively measure what’s working and what’s not, and adjust your strategy accordingly. Here are some of the metrics we measure and report on for our email marketing clients in higher education:

1. Automated Lead-Nurture Campaigns

For your automated campaigns, you should have dashboards or monthly reports showing:

  • Number of sends per email
  • Number of opened emails
  • Open rate of each email
  • Click rate
  • Click-through rate
  • Conversion rate on your bridge offers
  • Number of high-quality leads generated

2. Non-automated Email Blasts

When you send newsletters, content promotions, or other single-send, non-automated blasts, your dashboards and reports should tell you:

  • Total number of sends
  • Total number of opened emails
  • Open rate
  • Click rate
  • Click-through rate
  • Website conversions (in other words, how many email recipients ultimately led to a conversion on your website via either a premium content offer, an inquiry or request for more information, a virtual tour signup, an application, etc.)
  • Number of high-quality leads generated

Frequently Asked Questions About Higher Ed Email Marketing

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.

Q. What’s the best day of the week to send higher education marketing emails?

A: It depends on your audience. A recent study by Education Dynamics found that the day of the week doesn’t matter much if you’re promoting graduate programs. For undergraduate programs, Tuesday and Thursday have the highest performance rate, while Wednesday is the worst day for performance.

Q: What is a good open rate for higher ed marketing emails?

A: According to Hubspot, the average open rate for emails sent by educational institutions is 35.4%. If you’re in that ballpark, you’re doing pretty well! But you should also look to create your own benchmarks and goals for open rates and other email marketing metrics. Look at your highest-performing emails and try to reverse engineer what makes them compelling. Double down on the topics, tactics, and timing that work best for your school!

Q: How frequently should higher ed institutions send marketing emails to prospective students?

A: It depends on the content. For automated lead-nurture campaigns triggered by a content download, the first email should be sent immediately, with follow-up emails coming every few days. Newsletters should be sent on a regular cadence, and can be sent weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly.

“Check-in” emails for students who have stalled out lower in the funnel (e.g. prospects who have already crossed a threshold of engagement by requesting program information, scheduling a campus visit, or starting an application — but have since gone cold) should be sent regularly, but not so frequently that they become an annoyance. Luke Phillips, Executive Director of Marketing and Enrollment at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education & Psychology, takes this approach:

“Down the funnel, [we have an initiative managed by] our admissions team, our standard is 21 days. If someone’s an active student who hasn’t said they’re not interested yet, they get what we call “the trifecta”— a call, voicemail, email and text message about every 21 days.” (Source: Caylor Solutions)

Want Help with Your Higher Education Email Marketing Strategy?

You’ve come to the right place. As a digital marketing agency focused on education, Vital has crafted and executed successful email campaigns for some of the most successful colleges and universities in the country. Fill out this form and we’ll be in touch soon to get the conversation started.