Iris Manning

by Iris Manning

Business schools teach their students to always keep abreast of what’s going on in the marketplace and what competitors are doing.  Colleges are in the business of education, so they should plan accordingly. Especially with today’s demographic changes, like the decreasing birth rate and increasing numbers of nontraditional students, colleges need to find out what’s going on in the student marketplace so they can give the students what they want within their operational objectives.

As it turns out, some colleges are already changing their programs.  Two higher education administrators and an academic consulting firm shared their visions on tailoring their programs to meet student and operational needs:

Case Study One: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the Vice Chancellor’s website lists some of its strategic priorities:  

  • Enhance the undergraduate experience
  • Serve our graduate students
  • Promote diversity, inclusion & well-being
  • Broaden advising, career services & professional development
  • Strengthen academic infrastructure
  • Live our mission and values

The website offers some valuable insights into what M.I.T. is providing its students.  One of their values is student centeredness. The Office of the Vice Chancellor is charged with “partnering with community members to make improvements for our students in areas such as advising, professional development, diversity and inclusion, and well-being.”  

A record $38 million was raised for undergraduate financial aid in FY2019 to attract top students.  “Scholarships allow us to attract the best students from around the world, regardless of their financial or geographic background,” said Stuart Schmill ’86, dean of admissions and student financial services. He added:

Scholarships help create “a robustly talented and diverse class in order to enhance the living and learning environment, and therefore the educational outcomes, for all our students. Every scholarship introduces a new mind into the MIT community, and simultaneously enriches the life of the recipient and the campus.”

M.I.T. is also expanding on-campus graduate student housing due to the demand.


Case Study Two: Hampshire College

Hampshire College’s website lists some of its strategic priorities:  

The Hampshire Launch initiative is guided by a number of key principles:

  • Mission. The new student experience at Hampshire must be consistent with its essential mission and vision that has endured for 50 years—Hampshire as an innovator in higher education, providing inquiry-based, learner-centered education.
  • Unique. The plan must be different in character and kind from anything else in higher education.
  • Inspiring. The vision must inspire student recruitment and retention, as well as philanthropy in support of Hampshire.
  • Accessible. The plan should appeal to any student who promises to thrive at Hampshire, regardless of background.
  • Fair. The plan must consider reasonable expectations for employee labor.
  • Financially Sustainable. The new model must fit within a realistic assessment of future revenues. 

The news and events section of their website discussed their Hampshire Launch model and how they arrived at it:  

Hampshire College has announced a major effort to reinvent its pioneering academic program, engaging its campus community and 12,000 alumni in ongoing meetings this fall and promising to publish a plan by November. With its new plan, Hampshire has committed to keeping what’s most distinctive about its education, including its student-designed programs, model of faculty co-learning with students, rigorous capstone projects, and its values for social justice, diversity, and community engagement.”

Edward Wingenbach, President of Hampshire College, discussed how the college resolved its financial shortfalls that led to the strategic priorities above.  “How we got there was, between last spring and now, [we made] significant reductions in our operating budget, of about 20%. Much of that [was] in personnel but some of that [was] in also consolidating programs and focusing really relentlessly on what serves the core of our mission.”  

In his interview with WBUR, the President  discussed a $60 million fundraising campaign over five years.  He described some future planning with WBUR and ended with a warning to other colleges.  “I’m particularly interested in, for example, opportunities to take adult learners to complete degrees,” he said.  On the topic of liberal arts college survival, he said “You need to figure out what approach to the liberal arts is going to be yours, and that is compelling. That’s going to involve some really hard choices.”

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Case Study Three: SimpsonScarborough

It’s not just colleges and universities we can look to for initiatives on meeting the needs of today’s students. Sometimes additional support is needed, such as an academic consulting firm like SimpsonScarborough, that can aid in your decision making.  

“Higher education deserves the confidence of rigorous research and the inspiration that comes from genuine curiosity.” Jason Simon, Chief Operating Officer and Partner, notes that “Research and data are the language of universities.” listed some of their priorities when doing marketing strategy for Generation Z:

  • Make it relevant and personal
  • Serve bite-sized information
  • Multi-platform campaigns win

Their website describes marketing to Generation Z.  They want to know why the school would appeal to them.  “Segment your prospects by academic or extracurricular interests in order to effectively communicate the benefits of your institution. From an owned-media perspective, create Snapchat filters for events like open houses and preview days, or compile tailor-made Spotify playlists for different types of communication in order to create a connection with your prospects.

Generation Z likes to get to the heart of the matter quickly.  “Whether it’s a :15 second pre-roll video or ads on Snapchat, make top-of-funnel communications about the benefits of your brand short, concise, and to the point. Then, as your prospects learn more about you and begin to express interest and engage, they will start wanting more information and be willing to spend more time with it.”

Since Generation Z are muti-taskers, the company believes your brand should advertise on multiple sites.  “Consider including ads through online streaming services, and make sure your programmatic digital buy incorporates mobile ads and optimizes to the best-performing channels. The more platforms you appear on, the higher chance your message will be seen and resonate.”

In summary, the more you know about your school’s student and operational needs, the more successful your marketing campaign will be.  The schools that execute the best plans gain valuable feedback from within, but also look outside at what competitors are doing.

About the author

Iris Manning

Iris Manning earned her MBA from Northeastern University and studied journalism at Boston University.  Her articles have appeared in the Boston Business Journal,, the Colibri Group, the Worcester Gazette and

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