Benchmark This!

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

Marketing in a Post-Pandemic World

Marketing budgets and staffing have significantly increased from pre-pandemic levels

I once heard that when faced with trauma or chaos, humans consider a number of options … fight, flight (or flee) or freeze. Institutions and their leadership make similar choices when faced with economic adversity. Based on the 2022 UPCEA Marketing Survey, institutions of higher education and especially their professional, continuing and online (PCO) education units are apparently choosing to fight, as marketing budgets and staffing have significantly increased from pre-pandemic levels. Freezing for PCO units would mean keeping marketing budgets and staffing levels at par to pre-pandemic levels or waiting for traditional learners to return. This would also mean maintaining the same product or service and using similar processes in place pre-pandemic. Flight or fleeing for an institution of higher education or a PCO unit would mean a ceasing of operations or a merger with another institution or department.

Institutions and their PCO units appear to be choosing “fight” as their option, as they are investing in enrollment generating activities, as opposed to business-as-usual approaches. Evidence of this can be found in the 2021-2022 UPCEA Marketing Survey of 153 institutions. The survey shows that professional, continuing and online education units are devoting more resources to marketing. The average marketing budget is now 8.8% of gross revenues compared to 5.1% in 2020. One explanation of this could be that institutions are eager and concerned about lost revenue and enrollments due in part to the impending demographic cliff and increased competition, as well as disengaged or disenfranchised students to higher education. Another explanation could also be that PCO units are now marketing a more expansive portfolio that not only includes staples such as fully online graduate degrees, but also online baccalaureate programs, credit and noncredit certificates and other alternative credentials.

Annual Marketing Budget as a Percentage of Unit Revenue by Institution Size and Type


Units are spending 43% of their marketing budget on media, 25% on staffing and 20% on outsourced services. The average marketing department employs 6.88 full-time equivalent (FTE) marketing staff or using the median, as opposed to the average, 5.25 FTE marketers. This is a significant increase since 2020, up 1.4 FTEs on average during this timeframe. The increase may signify a desire to more aggressively enter a potentially more competitive, post-pandemic marketplace and/or to address changes to an institution’s portfolio, such as with a greater emphasis on alternative credentials.

Including yourself, how many full-time or full-time equivalent (FTE) employees does your marketing department employ?

It would appear that a lot is at stake and that institutions overall appear to be choosing to fight, relying heavily on their PCO units to reach lost or disenfranchised traditional students, traditional students seeking convenience, busy professionals seeking fully online degree programs, and skill seekers and career enhancers seeking shorter training or microcredentialing options. As part of this process, PCO units will need to address other issues and not just “throw money at it.” They will need to redesign and evaluate processes to be more user-centric and better strategize their enrollment management process to convert inquiries at the highest level possible. They will also need to address marketing organizational structure and talent acquisition, as well as retention, as marketers will be highly sought-after post-pandemic. These marketers may also benefit from increased salary and flexible work benefits, as the profession is well-suited for remote work situations.

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.

Do you need help with your PCO unit or campus? We can help. Contact UPCEA's Center for Research and Strategy for a brief consult. Email [email protected] or call us at 202-659-3130.

Whether you need benchmarking studies, or market research for a new program, UPCEA Consulting is the right choice.

We know you. We know the challenges you face and we have the solutions you need. We speak your language and have been serving leaders like you for more than 100 years. UPCEA consultants are current or former continuing and online higher education professionals who are experts in the industry—put our expertise to work for you.

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Whether you need to assess the viability of a new program, find out how you stack up with the competition or would like a program portfolio review, we can assist with research and data that will help move your unit forward. Your decisions impact the quality of your operation, as well as the bottom line. We’ll provide data that does more than sit on a page—it’s data that tells the story.

The UPCEA Center for Research and Strategy offers a variety of custom research options through a variable pricing model.

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