Data For Effective Marketing in an Uncertain Future

by David Brodigan and George Dehne

What data should a college have to remain effective in a more competitive and difficult environment? What does a college need to know about itself and its market before it attempts strategic and marketing planning? These are the two questions we are most often asked by presidents, trustees, and admission professionals trying to plan for a difficult future.

The Ineffective Standard: Competitor Comparison Data

Most colleges and universities collect pounds of data that show how their competition compares with their institution on such things as endowments, library holdings, faculty salaries, tuition, and so forth. While in most industries this kind of information can be helpful, competitor comparisons have become a fixation at many colleges. These institutions have gotten to the point where they will not make a strategic move without assuring themselves that their competition has already taken such a step. Yet in our view, any institution that simply wants to emulate its more selective competitors will always be second or worse. Institutions must get fresh data on their own situation, students, and position, and they must act upon what they learn.

Below we describe several categories of information that we believe colleges should have for effective marketing and planning. Obviously, the need for any one kind of information may be greater for one institution than for another, but the basics remain the same.

The Current Student Survey

We find it strange how little most colleges know about the opinions, expectations, and satisfaction of current students. At the minimum, a study of current students allows an institution to:

A college can utilize one of the standardized current student surveys, or it can develop a custom-designed one. The commercially available questionnaires, such as those offered by ACT or Noel Levitz are essentially student satisfaction surveys, while the College Student Experiences Questionnaire, developed by Robert Pace and his graduate students at UCLA, produces indexes that reflect important dimensions of the educational process as well as overall satisfaction. Since the retirement of Robert Pace, the CSEQ project has been taken over by George Kuh, Professor of Higher Education at Indiana University.

These survey instruments have been administered numerous times over a period of several years so that validity and reliability estimates are readily available. Also provided, in most cases, are norms which meet the need for comparisons with appropriate classes of institutions. To gain the most from these surveys, institutions must conduct data analyses beyond those which come with the package.

Alternatively, custom-designed surveys allow a college to focus on issues of specific concern to the college, test scenarios, and gain a fuller picture of special student segments. We have found the custom-designed surveys more valuable when student recruitment is an issue. An institution should conduct a current student survey with all its students, including graduate and non-traditional students, at intervals of two or three years. Obtaining repeated measures on individuals is a way of assessing student progress than can be an important benefit to any college with a serious interest in measuring the success of its educational efforts.

Evaluate Price Versus Quality

Many institutions, especially private colleges have pursued either a peer-pricing strategy or an ambition-based strategy. Peer pricing means a college raises its tuition and fees to stay near, above, or below a set of competing institutions. An ambition-based strategy first determines the goals for the coming year, and then calculates how much of a tuition increase is needed to accomplish them. Few institutions have studied their pricing as it relates to the perception of quality. The leaders in pricing theory tell us that there are three forces that affect what a college can charge. These forces are the market (and your institution's position in it), the college's public image, and the total cost of the services the college wishes to provide.

Your assessment of these factors should include measures of institutional price and quality representing the perceptions of prospective students. The position of your institution on those perceptual dimensions should be compared with the positions of other institutions representative of your competition. That competition set should include public, private, regional, and national institutions. Is your institution perceived to be less expensive that other colleges that in fact do not cost as much as yours? In the minds of prospective students, is the perceived quality of your institution commensurate with the price they think you charge?

The college that is perceived to have relatively low price and comparatively high quality enjoys considerable market advantage, and under appropriate circumstances may be able to raise its fees relative to other institutions in its competition set. On the other hand, when perceived quality lags behind perceived price, raising annual tuition and fees too rapidly can have dire consequences. Perhaps the worst circumstance is to have low perceived quality and low perceived price when, in reality, actual price lies toward the high end of the price distribution. With that kind of distortion, the perceived value of the experience offered by that college will certainly diminish if students' perceptions of its price are corrected somehow. Pricing strategies can be applied confidently only when the perceptions of price and quality, held by prospective students, are understood fully.

Admitted Student Survey

Why do some students who are admitted to an institution choose to enroll while others do not? This is the question an admitted student survey attempts to answer. An admitted student survey allows a college to see how enrolling and non-enrolling students differ on issues ranging from prestige and price to financial aid and social life. If the sample is large enough, an institution can even look at why students chose a specific institution over another. Even when the sample is small, an institution can examine that question by institutional category (Carnegie Classification, U.S. News categories, etc.)

For several years, the College Board has offered a low-cost Admitted Student Questionnaire (ASQ) that is a satisfactory means of obtaining basic response frequencies and a fundamental analysis of the yield stage of the admission process. Unfortunately, the standard ASQ analysis does not provide information, for example, on whether women have a different impression of an institution than men, or whether the location is more of a deterrent to the enrollment because of distance from home, place within the state, or kind of neighborhood. The ASQ has greater value if the institution purchases the data and conducts further analysis on income and ability levels, geographic and gender differences, and so forth. This custom analysis greatly increases the value of the Admitted Applicant Survey by gaining a clearer picture of your institution's admitted students.

Some colleges, in an effort to gain greater insight into their admitted student populations, do custom-designed admitted student surveys. With a customized survey, a college can ask questions related to specific aspects of the college (perceived safety, specific facilities and so forth). It can also determine specific typologies of students within the applicant pool, in order to determine whether the college is losing students who otherwise would be served especially well by the college.

Non-Applying Inquirers Survey

Students who inquire, but do not apply, are the key to increasing an institution's market share. Inquirers are students who were initially attracted to an institution, but then discarded it as an option. Knowing how they view the institution and what kinds of things might have converted them to applicants can provide volumes of information. It also can increase applications. Since most private colleges and universities convert from five to 11 percent of their many thousand inquiries into applicants, even a modest increase can have a major impact on the number of applications.

A non-applying inquiry survey offers the following kinds of opportunities:

  1. Study pricing issues. Through an inquiry study, an institution can determine how much inquirers are willing to pay for a college education, how students equate price with quality, the role of merit scholarships, and so forth.
  2. Test the actual attractiveness of proposed changes and additions to programs, services, or facilities. An inquiry study can show if certain changes in emphasis or direction would have an impact on student recruitment. A variety of scenarios can be tested in a low-risk way in this kind of study.
  3. Determine and test an institution's market position. An inquiry study allows an institution to determine whether it has a strong position in the marketplace. It can, at the same time, test how effectively a college has been described to prospective students.
  4. Test the appropriate semantics. An inquiry study tests the language used to present a benefit or program to the student market. Student recruitment depends a great deal on semantics: the right way to describe an activity.
  5. Learn more about the benefits expected from their college experience and students' generic perceptions of an institution's experience. An inquiry survey allows a college to determine what array of benefits or outcomes students expect from their college experience ranging from location to cost to social life to religious affiliation.
  6. Learn more about how students select colleges. An inquiry study makes it possible to get a handle on any changing patterns in the admission process.
  7. Find out how an institution and its students are perceived. For example, is the institution thought of as more or less rigorous, friendly, intellectual, expensive, etcetera than its aspiration set and its real competition? Are its students perceived as hard working, party animals, socially aware, or snobbish?
  8. Take a "snapshot" of inquirers. Are inquirers different in some substantial way from applicants? Are inquirers more or less academically qualified than applicants? Why did these students initially inquire about, but fail to apply?
  9. Learn more about specific groups. Distinct groups of prospective students within the inquiry pool view the admission process quite differently. A segmented study allows your institution to learn the differences and similarities between groups such as high-ability and moderate-ability students, minority and majority students, in-state and out-of-state students, males and females, and so forth.
  10. Identify the "right" students for an institution. Combined with a customized current student survey described above, an inquiry survey allows an institution to determine how many students in the inquiry pool match the profile of the most-successful and best-served current students. Data from the inquiry and current student survey can also determine the best way to identify and attract the "right" student.

A Survey of Alumni

The importance of the alumni can not be over stated. Not only can alumni be a major source of revenue, in many ways, they carry the image and reputation of the college with them. In our student recruitment research, we find that it is often the casual remarks of an alumnus that turns a prospective student toward or away from an institution. Additionally, the alumni reflect the values of the institution. A supportive alumnus often leads to corporate and foundation gifts.

Generally, there are two major goals of an alumni study: 1) To learn the attitudes toward the institution and determine how the institution can better serve the alumni. 2) To determine why some alumni contribute to the institution and learn what might make noncontributors give.

A well-crafted alumni survey can provide the following:

  1. Determine how alumni viewed their experience. How satisfied are they with the educational, social, and residential life on campus? Was their alma mater their first choice when they enrolled? In past alumni surveys, we have found that satisfaction with their college experience is by far the greatest predictor of whether they will participate as alumni in college affairs and be active in admission. Additionally, this information, if positive, can convince a prospective student that your institution can deliver the kinds of outcomes he or she expects.
  2. Learn if the alumni have an up-to-date and an accurate view of the institution. For example, do the alumni have an accurate perception of its competition for admission? If the institution has deliberately changed over the years, do the alumni have an accurate perception of the change? If the alumni do not notice or appreciate a change, one can be certain that the public will not.
  3. Discover if the alumni believe the institution has declined or improved since they attended. In their view, how does the college of today compare to in the institution they knew well in their day along dimensions of prestige, quality of students, quality of faculty, facilities, reputation, and so forth?
  4. Determine if the institution has been or will be among the options considered by the children of alumni. The greatest symbol of confidence in the institution is the willingness of alumni to entrust their children.
  5. Find out what kinds of services, alumni expect or would appreciate from the institution. Is there greater interest in local alumni clubs, more reunions, continuing education, or college counseling for their children?


Obviously, there is a monetary cost to these efforts. Even modest campus based research efforts require both financial and human resources. Yet the alternative also has its own costs. A college that relies on anecdotal information or simply measures its success against competing institutions, does so at its own risk. In these turbulent times, colleges and universities must continually assess their environment in creative and original ways. Strategic and marketing plans are merely wish lists if a college or university does not thoroughly understand its audiences -- attitudinally and demographically.

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