Why some colleges thrive while others coast and dwindle?

Not a week goes by that we don’t see the news of a college closing, merging or downsizing. Unfavorable demographics and remote locations are purported to be the primary reasons for their troubles. We disagree. Having served numerous colleges over the past two decades, and observing the evolving collegiate scene, we believe that the following reasons are the key drivers that put colleges in distress:

Marketing Imagination

Many colleges in distress lack marketing imagination. They fail to invest in creating a distinctive brand based on their one strong-to-impenetrable differentiation, learning to speak with their one true brand voice, nurturing the brand with thoughtful communications, or protecting the brand from being fractured by the forces of efficiency.

They fail to shift their overall communications perspective from one that is centered around what the institution offers to one focused on projects, ideas and stories of their students, faculty and alumni (the real “heroes” of the story).

Enrollment Management Practices

The enrollment practices of many colleges in trouble are focused on meeting short-term targets, irrespective of right-fit.

Instead of motivating prospects with inspired marketing, they are employing tired enrollment tactics from firms who buy names in large number, then throw commoditized direct mail/email at prospective students, hoping to snare a few. These outdated methods completely disregard the habits of savvy Gen-Z kids who are maintaining five to six email accounts to filter out email noise, and are mercilessly throwing away the look-alike direct mail pieces.

As a result, their students melt away, and their graduation and placement rates are low. Brand loyalty is not formed.

Academic Innovation

The academic offerings of afflicted colleges aren’t keeping up with the times. Instead of creatively re-imagining their program offerings for the integrative Gen-Z thinkers, they are making simple-minded choices between Liberal Arts or STEM, Business or Liberal Arts, etc. Instead of creating new degrees that the marketplace would reward for their distinctiveness, they are creating traditional degrees in over-crowded spaces.

Additionally, they are reluctant to explore and harvest new student streams such as adult students, online learners, distance learners, career enhancers, and corporate education professionals.

Caring for Students

The staff of many colleges in decline either has not been trained to serve the students, or doesn’t have the heart to serve their student audiences. They give lip service to the promises made in their mission statements. They want students’ (and their families’) hard-earned money, but don’t offer the empathy and support services that lead to student success.

They don’t invest in the support infrastructure to proactively help each student segment work through the unique obstacles they’ll inevitably face on their journey to graduation and beyond.

The net effect is weakened staff morale and high transfer rates.

Management Practices

The management practices of many colleges in decline need to be rejuvenated. On the one hand, they create org structures that foster or perpetuate departmental silos; and on the other, they hold senior people accountable without giving them the authority to “own” decisions.

Budgetary Practices

Many colleges in trouble allocate more money to traditional media when, in reality, their audiences are spending almost all their time on digital devices and channels.

They haven’t embraced the mantra of “money makes money”. They are under-staffed and under-resourced.

Weaponized Content

The staff at many distressed colleges doesn’t have the wherewithal to weaponize the content they create for the digital world in which Google page 1 rankings are shaping institutional reputation. They are creating new content (news, social media, university magazine, blogs, website, etc.) at a furious pace without informing it by a Keyword Lexicon – comprised of high-value words and phrases they can rightfully claim and “own” to drive right-fit conversions and marketing ROI.

Agile Culture

The cultures at colleges in decline are not adaptive and dynamic. Doing it the way it has always been done gets in the way of doing the right thing that emerging situations demand. They move at a glacial pace because of too many friction points and unwieldy bureaucracies.

Culture of Giving

A culture of giving is missing at most distressed colleges, resulting in a smaller endowment war chest to either attract the brightest students or reduce dependency on tuition revenue. They fail to maintain sustained communications with alumni. They send tone-deaf communications, which are insensitive to emotions, motivations and needs prevalent in different stages of life of their alumni. They don’t cultivate alumni engagement with programs commensurate with what they can give: time, treasure and/or talent. They don’t have customized models to place alumni in a spectrum of ‘likelihood to give’ tiers, and sending customized communications to each differentiated segment.

As a result, their giving rates are low and their endowments are small.

Activist Boards

Many distressed colleges have board of directors who are lifestyle board members. They are not willing to actively lean in to help create institutional inflection points.

Community Relationships

Many colleges in decline lack porous walls between the institution. Thus they are disconnected with the vitality of external communities including corporations, non-profits and civic organizations.

The net impact of this is that they are not perceived as schools of consequence.

Metrics That Matter

Many distressed colleges operate with either squishy metrics, too many KPI’s, or lack a disciplined culture of accountability by essential metrics that truly matter.

These schools meander instead of realizing their destiny.


Healthy colleges typically are run by a strong partnership between the President, Provost, VP for Enrollment & Marketing, and Chief Fundraising Officer. This group hires outside branding and marketing talent for the digital age that knows how to create the very best first impressions; they commandeer budgets steering them in the right direction; they foster a culture of academic product innovation; they expect porous walls between the institution and the outside world; they care deeply for the well-being of students throughout the student lifecycle; they monitor a set of metrics that matter to gauge progress; and they welcome polarity with contrarian and activist board members. In a nutshell, they run an autocratic democracy where everyone is heard, but the right things are done.

If you are seeking higher education marketing agencies to grow enrollment, endowment and reputation of your college, view our higher education marketing capabilities and consider partnering with us.