Benchmark This!

Latest Trends Impacting Marketing and Higher Education
from Director of UPCEA's Center for Research and Strategy, Jim Fong

Creeping Out Generation Z

The next generation of adult learners, Generation Z (those currently between the ages of 13 and 23) and young Millennials (roughly 24 to 30), are very different from other generations.  They research providers more, as well as being more likely to abandon shopping carts.[i]  They get creeped out by our efforts to extract too much information at once or essential information at the wrong time.  UPCEA conducted a study of 100  of its members’ Request for Information (RFI) forms to determine how easy they were to find and what questions were being asked, which are mandatory, and how many might be required at this early stage of the relationship.  What we found was downright creepy for many institutions.  While about a third of our members appear to be doing things correctly, many have entered the realm of “creepy,” with one institution asking over two dozen questions at the early inquiry stage.  This UPCEA exercise and its findings are critical in what we see as a tightening, finite market for enrollments, especially online credit degree seeking students.

With enrollments getting tighter due to an increased supply of online programs and what is estimated to be slower growth for online enrollments, many institutions may be struggling to meet their goals.  With fewer 18-year-olds coming to campus in the next decade, many colleges and universities have invested significant capital in the online race.  Some have entered into Online Program Management (OPM) relationships to quickly enter the crowded online degree marketplace.  With many more entrants in this space, the overall race may be slowing down with supply exceeding demand and the economy pivoting more to artificial intelligence and automation.  Also, a significant factor in the battle for online enrollments is what appears to be a disproportionate percentage of enrollments going to the larger online institutions, as noted in the 2018 OLC/Babson[ii][1] report and state-by-state data from the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA).[iii]  The report states that 5% of providers garner 47% of the market for learners seeking a credit degree online.

The next big thing institutions are starting to invest in more heavily is alternative credentials, such as badges and certificates.  A current UPCEA/Mindedge[iv] survey shows that 70% of our membership offers alternative credentials with another 27% planning on doing so in the near future.  Some institutions are taking alternative credentialing further and are looking at unbundling or repackaging their degrees into more stackable formats as a potential future offering.  From a basic marketing standpoint, one might call these addressing two of the ”Ps” of marketing[v] … Product and Place.  The Product is being unbundled or repackaged into different formats, as well as new products being brought to the marketplace.  The Place element is delivering the product via online or in the classroom, such as in a bootcamp or even hybrid delivery.  One could also argue that Price, as a third “P,” is being addressed by offering modules, certificates and badges at reduced unit prices, as well as bringing out-of-state online degree programs in line with in-state tuition models.

The fourth “P,” Promotion, is on-going and a given for many institutions regarding online and continuing education programs.  Some have fully handed off marketing degree programs to their OPMs, while others have built internal marketing teams.  These institutions are investing and refining their approaches to marketing and enrollment management.  More UPCEA marketers are using customer relationship management systems (CRMs), conducting analytics and producing metrics, and adopting more social and digital media.  Data on these growing trends will be released by UPCEA in 2020.[vi]

"If institutions are really serious about student acquisition, they cannot ignore the intake and user experience. They need to re-examine their processes and stop being lazy in the information gathering and relationship building process."The last “P” is a mixed bag for many institutions, and that is how they are addressing “People” from an internal employee and customer-centric perspective.  Many companies and organizations are adapting or re-designing their customer and prospect interfaces and processes from the ground up.  This push toward achieving greater outcomes through a more deliberate design around the users is just starting to hit colleges and universities regarding embracing the student of tomorrow.  In examining the 100 members’ RFI processes,[vii] UPCEA has determined that most are designed around the institutions’ needs or a different generation of adult and corporate learners.  In other UPCEA research, mystery shopping has also yielded suboptimal results for many institutions as well.  The end conclusion is that with the rise of a new economy being led by Millennial managers and leaders who in turn will be directing Generation Z subordinates for more education and training, professional and continuing education is ill-prepared.  While this finding is not pleasant, it does offer those institutions who are able to adapt a clear competitive advantage with a potentially higher yield than most.  This is the new battleground for inquirers.  Here is some of our evidence from the UPCEA RFI research which we’ve labeled the UPCEA Creepiness Index.

UPCEA developed a number of categories based on the questions members are asking inquirers.  These categories are Essential, Acceptable, Tolerable, Intrusive, Invasive and Creepy.  Thirty-four percent fell into Essential or Acceptable, while 23% we deemed as Creepy.  Those falling into Creepy asked many questions beyond the basics, including employer information, GPA, second emails and second phone numbers.  Some also ask whether the inquirer is first generation to college and even their high school class rank.

The average institution asks seven questions at this initial stage, but some institutions will often start the process off with a simple request for name and email and build off that.  Those that ask too many are likely to experience what many outside of higher education call the “abandoned shopping cart” effect.  Abandoned shopping carts or stopping the inquiry process is caused by an unbalanced exchange of information and benefits and the creation of unexpected surprises for the inquirer. 

If institutions are really serious about student acquisition, they cannot ignore the intake and user experience.  They need to re-examine their processes to stop being lazy in the information gathering and relationship building process, otherwise they become creepy and the new adult abandons the information search for a suitable provider.  If institutions build a process that creates trust by asking the right questions at the right time by first understanding the customer and then leveraging CRM technology and defined processes, it is likely that they will convert inquiries at a higher rate and dramatically improve their conversion rates and enrollments.

Let’s not scare the children…I mean young adults.  UPCEA will be releasing a more comprehensive whitepaper on its Creepiness Index in March/April of 2020.


[i] YPulse Monthly Survey, august 2019



[iv] 2020 UPCEA Mindedge Alternative Credentials Survey


[vi] 2020 UPCEA Dashboard and Metrics Survey

[vii] 2020 UPCEA Creepiness Index

Jim Fong, UPCEA

Lead consultant Jim Fong, the founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy, has extensive background in marketing at Penn State, as well as experience in private industry. Jim brings a rich understanding of the dynamics driving today’s higher education leaders, providing research-driven strategy and positioning. Jim often presents at UPCEA’s regional and national conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.

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