Colleges and universities and a declining population

By Tom Dougherty

Universities and the declining population

declining populationThere are many pressures on colleges and universities today. But for universities, the declining population is a more significant threat than all the others.

Despite rising tuition, room, and board— even at public institutions, the greatest danger may well end up being the declining population.

“Between 2010 and 2020, the average tuition increase at 2-year colleges was $1,005 or 41.2%.

For 4-year institutions, the average tuition increased 34.3% or by $2,448 at public 4-year institutions and 48.9% or $10,881 at private 4-year institutions”. (figures courtesy of Education

Why is rebranding needed to protect against a declining population?

Income has not kept up with these rising costs. And I don’t think anyone should underestimate the lasting effects of COVID. I think universities and colleges are in for a rough ride.

declining populationIt is simple economics for colleges and universities. Think of it as higher education inflation—too few customers for too many products.

One of the problems with higher education is a tendency to drink the Kool-aide. A tendency among educators to believe your hype.

I know from first-hand experience that it is a rare university that sees the incoming students as a “market.” But, with a declining population, that reality will set in.

The business of colleges and universities in higher ed. But the keyword here is BUSINESS (read a market study on university brands here).

No doubt colleges and universities understand they are in a competitive market. No one doubts that realization. But all too often, they think the tangible things they own will differentiate them. They won’t.

It is simple economics for colleges and universities. Think of it as higher education inflation—too few customers for too many products.”


Every university needs to create emotional preference

declining population This means they need to create a brand. So, I ask these administrators what I mean when I say BRAND?

I’m not talking about your school’s name, grounds, curriculum, and reputation. Those are all elements that should support your brand.

I’m talking about persuasive branding and creating an emotional bond with prospective students.

Here is a secret about persuasive brands. They don’t talk about themselves and sing their accolade. Great brands are an emotional label for the student themselves.

This emotional element is more important than anything you have to offer with a declining population, except a free ride.

declining population The seminal question to ask is, “who does the student believe they ARE when choosing your university? I did not ask what they were getting or the future they hoped to achieve. Great brands are in the present. Think of them as a tattoo that the student wants to wear on their forehead. It is what they want to world to see.

Let’s be honest. If you are Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, or MIT, the declining population may not affect you much. You have a smaller student body, and students that you accept feel honored.

You already own an emotional brand. But what about the Rutgers and Temples and Bowling Greens? I went to Temple— be careful Temple, the Owls will come home to roost (read an article about how universities are failing in rebranding relevancy).

“Are you willing to wait until a declining population renders your institution redundant?”

Here is a current example

declining population Stealing Share has worked with many universities over the years. And during the COVID crisis, New England College of Optometry asked us for help. . You won’t see that many graphic changes there because they are less important than the emotional charge.

And what is that emotion for a student looking to go to optometry school?  So, the question is, “who ARE they during the process.

Take a look. NECO took the highest emotional intensity in the market and embraced it. It reflects the state of mind of the applicant. In the present moment. Who are you? I am someone making the most important decision of your life.

declining population Because prospective students FEEL that way, it immediately puts NECO on their side. As a result, with that clarity, everything NECO says about itself is believable. They seen are honest and direct. Believable and empathetic.

So NECO is better prepared for a declining population. They are investing in a brand with emotional importance. Holding onto that emotional importance allows the prospective student to see everything NECO offers (and they offer a lot) as having higher value.

Not everyone gets out of their way

But NECO has visionary leadership and faculty (no pun intended). They see into the future and anticipate the changes coming. A declining population demands higher education adapt to the competitive environment.

declining population Are you willing to wait until a declining population renders your institution redundant? Or will you ask the tough questions now and be prepared?

What is the fastest-growing trend in education today? I’ll give you a one-word hint: Covid— and subsequent remote learning.

It is here to stay. And that places great demands on higher ed finances. Students don’t want to pay the same tuition to school remotely. They expect a break. So, all the funds funneled into infrastructure may be less critical tomorrow. On your balance sheet, it may move from asset to liability.

declining population A declining population is in our future

It will affect enrollment. We all agree on that. But an emotional brand creates preference now and in the future.

Give us a call, and we can discuss a brand audit of your university or college. In a few short weeks, we will know if your brand needs work. The market has changed. Are you doing the same?