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Marketing the Intangible in Higher Education

Persuading people of the value of intangible goods

Selling education isn’t like selling a car. Since the buyers can’t see what they are purchasing, colleges have to rely on people’s faith in the value of an intangible college education. Marketing the intangible in higher education is challenging. People need to believe in the idea of a degree, something that will never be more solid than a diploma.

At least in years past, you could count on people respecting that piece of paper, which represents years of hard work and achievement. But, times have changed. Now, the American public is increasingly skeptical of the value of higher education.

Higher education has an image issue

According to the results from a new survey conducted by New America, people do not trust colleges to deliver on their promises. A majority, 58%, think that colleges put their own needs ahead of those of their students. And, 51% believe that there are many well-paying jobs available to people without college degrees – which is not true.

The good news is that the vast majority of people still do think that it’s easier to be successful with a degree. It’s possible to convince them that your college is worth the investment. It just takes the right marketing strategy.

Can people trust your brand?

Just as a brand like Nike transcends any single pair of shoes, your school brand overshadows any single program or class. The great thing is that brands are powerful. They can outlast difficult years and cast a halo over every aspect of a business.

The question is, how has the community college brand fared recently? That same survey by New American contains some good news for community colleges. Over eighty percent of respondents thought community college were worth the cost.

That means they don’t just think community colleges are cost effective. They see the value of the community college brand, and they trust it. People have faith that a degree from community college will help them reach their goals.

Be highly visible

Thanks to the New American survey, we know people do trust the community college brand. They reported that community colleges were more likely than any other institution of higher education to prepare people to be successful, build a strong workforce, and put students first.

Community colleges can build on that confidence. It’s important to be a visible force for good in your community. That doesn’t just mean taking out a lot of billboard spots (although it doesn’t hurt if you have the budget). People want to see more than a slogan from their local college.

Forming partnerships with nearby businesses and reaching out to local leaders cements your reputation as a community builder, one that’s invested in the area and its students. Your marketing plan should also include some form of long-form content, which is particularly effective at making the community aware of what’s happening at your school.

Find your tangibles

A college education might be intangible, but your new nursing simulation lab is not. Students visiting your campus or viewing your website are going to be looking for tangible evidence that your intangible degree is a good investment. Make sure you have something to show them.

Still, community colleges should not take their cue from private and four-year public schools in this regard. These have increasingly sunk money into over-the-top student facilities, with climbing walls and made-to-order omelet stations. Residential halls have also received a major overhaul lately, with dorms rivaling luxury apartments.

Community colleges do have tangibles to show prospective students, but it require a different approach. Emphasize your exciting internship opportunities, the accomplishments of your students, and your new or updated learning spaces. You don’t need a lazy river to show prospective students evidence of a quality education.

Have all the answers

People need proof that your school has something valuable to offer. They are often deciding between more than one option, and each school is trying to distinguish itself and earn the students’ trust by pointing to similar things. Don’t let it become a competition between their 24/7 gym and your library.

There is something far more significant your school can do to show that your institution is trustworthy. Information is a valuable resource, and one that consumers sorting through piles of college literature appreciate. They have real questions. Be the school with the answers.

  • Offer comprehensive information about financial aid
  • Showcase stories of real students
  • Feature available apprenticeships and internships
  • Provide college application resources
  • Track down job market statistics
  • Use multiple channels to reach students with this information

Think of the kinds of questions or issue a prospective student is likely to have and be the school that answers those questions honestly and in detail. People will keep returning to you for helpful information about their choices and the college application process.

When students trust your institution, they want your degree

When you’ve become a trusted resource, you’ve established a relationship with prospective students. In the end this is the most powerful way to sell an intangible. When people have faith in your school, they value your degree.

And, while this is clearly never a problem for schools like Harvard, community colleges sometimes underestimate the power of their brand. Too often schools assume that students will automatically see them as an inferior option, a last resort school.

The truth is that Americans trust community colleges. If you feel like your school has lost control of the narrative, it’s time to start rewriting the script. We can tell you how to take charge of your story again.