The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Greeting the Student of the Future on their Terms at the Digital Storefront

A person (Jim Fong) smiles at the camera

By Jim Fong

We are emerging from the pandemic and the higher education landscape is daunting. The battle for funding and student loan debt relief is tied up in the court system.  New statements have been released from the Department of Education regarding bundled services and third-party providers. Politics are at play regarding college systems in Florida and Oklahoma, as well as in other states.  It also seems like a month doesn’t go by without a college or university announcing a merger or closure, with the most recent group including Presentation College (SD) and Finlandia University (MI).

In the past, colleges and universities held the keys to a highly educated workforce.  The K-12 system fed these institutions the enrollments they needed, and employers were at their mercy for college graduates.  Over the past few decades, colleges and universities semi-prepared graduates for the workforce, and the employer gave them the additional training and experience needed to make up for potential knowledge and skill-readiness holes.  With few exceptions, employers tolerated the educational deficits because they had an ample supply of graduates and often received an entry-level employee who was close to ready, often motivated, showed a good work ethic, and had a credential that correlated well with workplace success at the time – the bachelor’s or associate’s degree. 

Today, a new and fast-moving economy is changing the demands, influence, and needs of the workforce.  With the impending demographic cliff on the horizon and decline in the perceived value of the degree in play, employers have more leverage, as do Generation Z employees and millennial decision-makers.  Every employee hired, invested in and retained matters, and employers know that.  Every college student and college graduate matters, and colleges and universities need to acknowledge that. 

While there is momentum in the marketplace for more stackable credentials leading to degrees, alternative forms of higher education and training are also becoming more popular, such as technology bootcamps, professional certificates, and digital badges.  With change afoot, higher education institutions need to communicate these new educational offerings.  For decades, their message has been “come to college and earn a degree,” while not informing potential students about other opportunities.  When individuals do hear about new opportunities or search via a search engine, they often land on institutionally-centered websites and messaging.

A recent study conducted by UPCEA and digital marketing company Search Influence revealed that many colleges and universities are not prepared to greet the new adult learner.  As part of the study, UPCEA conducted a readiness audit of 100 of its member institutions and found many to be not search engine ready and ill-equipped to greet potential learners effectively or efficiently.  In fact, while the majority of marketing leaders see search engine optimization as important (84%), just 51% have an established SEO strategy.  This issue is compounded by other inefficiencies in the enrollment management process that also negatively impact the potential student experience, creating a leaky budget scenario regarding inquiry to student conversion.

What institutions need to do is to redesign their websites or “storefronts” to greet visitors better and, to manage change, track and measure progress and performance through the use of customer relationship management (CRM) tools and marketing automation and enrollment management systems. Websites need to be designed around the student, similar to how a brick and mortar retail operation would greet a walk-in customer.  The customer needs to be acknowledged, greeted, welcomed, and provided with information to make decisions.  Higher education is receiving failing grades on this by leaving legacy websites aimed at the adult learner from two decades ago operational, creating sites that are over-creative (but winning awards or praise internally) without a target audience in mind, or designing new sites that are centered around the institution’s products first and the learner as an afterthought.

The higher education winners in the new economy will have stackable credentials that lead to a degree that factors in noncredit learning and relevant experience, but also that are warm to their target audience by leveraging effective digital approaches and tools when they greet the student of the future.

View and download the UPCEA/Search Influence report here.


Jim Fong, UPCEA’s Chief Research Officer, 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 conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.

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