The Secret to Getting More Marketing Dollars in Higher Education


By: Christopher Tashjian Jan 11, 2017

Online programs are quickly becoming a preferred format of delivery for prospective higher education students across the country. In 2014, nearly a quarter of undergraduate students (4.8 million) and one third of graduate students (953,000) participated in some form of online education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. What’s more, in 2015 the number of higher education students taking at least one online course grew 3.9% over the previous year (according to a survey conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Pearson, WCET, StudyPortals, and Tyton Partners.) As popularity grows for online program formats among prospective students, so too does the competition between colleges and universities to find and enroll these students. In order for your institution to capture its share of the growing online higher education segment, you will need to research, design and market your programs efficiently and effectively. And while there’s little doubt among students and employers of the value of online programs, marketing departments still face internal hurdles from institutional leaders who either aren’t aware of the segment’s growth or don’t believe in the format. To help you overcome their concerns and gain approval for increasing your marketing budget, I’ve put together this short and actionable plan based on 4 tactics found in our new eBook, Making the Case: Gaining Approval for Additional Budget to Market Online Programs.  

Click Here to Learn How to Get More Marketing Dollars in this Free eBook

1. Focus on outcomes first

Purpose should always come before need when aiming for a budget increase. A discussion with college leadership that starts off with the tone of “I need money” rarely receives the desired results. If the focus of the discussion is primarily set to budget allocations, decision makers will likely focus on marginal budget increases or restructuring the current budget to meet the new marketing expenses. On the other hand, if specific objectives and growth targets are the primary focus of the discussion, buy-in is much more likely. The purpose will have been already demonstrated and, most important, focused on growth. This will frame the discussion with hard metrics and provide decision makers a clear path for understanding why the budget increase is necessary.  

2. Clarify your value proposition

When asking for a large marketing budget, ambiguity is not your friend. To gain buy-in for increasing your budget to market online programs, decision makers are most influenced by data. Focused higher education market research can answer some important questions for you to underpin your marketing budget proposal. These questions include:

  • What is the size of our addressable market?
  • Who are our competitors?
  • What programs are prospective online students looking for?
  • How much will we need to spend per enrollment?
Higher Education Marketing

By answering these questions, you can develop a proposal that clearly demonstrates a direct correlation between increasing marketing spend and receiving additional enrollments. When decision makers are provided with an accurate prediction of the return-on-investment (ROI), the chances of gaining approval for more funds always increases.  

3. Prepare for objections

Few decision makers are ever convinced the first time around, especially in the face of a large proposal. The three most common objections are:

  1. Lack of available budget dollars
  2. Current economic situation
  3. A preference for keeping all funds within existing “buckets”

Even though you might be on the same team, asking for a budget increase can be like playing chess. When it comes to your strategy, it’s best to get to know your opponents and be prepared to respond to their objections. The most skeptical decision makers are typically the Vice President of Academic Affairs, Vice President of Operations (COO), and the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Each of these potential skeptics has an entirely different line of thinking from the other, and your argument must be structured accordingly. For example, an argument emphasizing the correlation between marketing online programs and increasing diversity in the student body might appeal to the Vice President of Academic Affairs more than the CFO. However, a more analytical and finance-centered argument revolving around ROI may speak your CFO’s language more fluently. The universal language among all of these decision makers, however, are metrics and ROI. To calculate your true ROI, you will need to know the following information:

  • Cost-per-inquiry (CPI)
  • Number of inquiries
  • Number of students enrolled
Cost per Student Acquisition Formula

Without the right tools in place, such as an inquiry management system, surfacing this data can become a time-consuming task. However, it’s critically important if you wish to understand your true cost per acquisition. Once you’ve unearthed these metrics, your cost per acquisition is calculated by multiplying your CPI by the number of inquiries to get your total marketing cost, and then dividing that number by the number of students enrolled to get your true cost per student acquisition. These metrics serve three important functions: (1) creates data that eliminates the possibility of surprises, (2) provides decision makers with key information on ROI and (3) controls expectations. And if you should ever need to revise your budget in the future due to market changes, you’ll have established a trusting relationship with the decision makers based on hard facts – and not just anecdotes.  

Click Here to Learn How to Get More Marketing Dollars in this Free eBook

4. Test, evaluate, and refine your marketing strategy

Making the Case

Develop a history of executing and optimizing your marketing strategy to reduce friction when asking for additional marketing budget. Consider Eric Ries’ Lean Startup method where companies constantly prototype and release new versions of a product while gauging the market for feedback until they find their fit. Similarly, your marketing strategy must be constantly reviewed and refined to ensure your funds are being spent efficiently and effectively. Testing enables teams to gather critically important information and minimize the risk of dumping the entire marketing budget into an ineffective process. This incremental learning process helps refine the marketing strategy, while also convincing decision makers that resources are being utilized effectively. With 5 million students projected to study exclusively online by 2020 – and the competition among higher education institutions to meet this demand increasing daily – everyone in your institution must be on the same page if you hope to be successful. Though positioning your argument for increasing the marketing budget for your online programs could be rooted in anything, from increasing enrollments to serving as a catalyst for institutional transformation, it will only gain support if you plan, define, and support your marketing strategy with hard data. For more advice on how to overcome budget concerns for marketing online programs, download our free eBook: Making the Case