Restabilizing Student Enrollment Post-Pandemic: Why Colleges and Universities Need to Think More Holistically About Marketing Strategy

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently reported a 3.2 percent decline in fall student enrollment on top of last year’s 3.4 percent drop. This is one of the largest two-year decreases in half a century. While the market for prospective college students was competitive prior to 2020, the pandemic was a devastating blow to many universities.

In my role at Relearnit, I provide marketing assistance to universities with online programs. A majority of this market segment consists of working adults, many with families. Even as many businesses are beginning to settle into a “new normal,” a lot of our students continue to struggle with homeschooling children or working longer hours due to staffing shortages. With our students spread so thin, it’s challenging to engage them in considering working toward an advanced degree.

The pandemic made the higher education market more competitive and set a new bar for student expectations. When students enroll in a program, they make a significant financial and time investment that is especially difficult in this environment. To strengthen enrollment and stand out in a saturated market, university marketing strategies need to align with core marketing pillars before initiating specific tactics.

Although different marketing tactics fluctuate in their effectiveness, truly impactful marketing still boils down to the foundational four Ps – product, price, place and promotion. Successful higher education marketing campaigns incorporate all four elements.

Product: This element played a major role in my decision to join Relearnit. Throughout the pandemic, many universities tried to build or enhance their online program offerings, but in their rush to enter the space, they introduced programs that failed to resonate with students or meet their unique demands. At Relearnit, we exclusively market online programs in which we are subject matter experts to ensure a quality curriculum. Additionally, we only promote programs that align with our Academics First® approach: a comprehensive and informed decision-making process that ensures our students can leverage their degrees upon graduation and that our higher education partners meet their enrollment goals.

Price: After years of tuition price hikes, many universities drastically discounted rates during the height of the pandemic. This choice, coupled with the increasingly competitive online market, has made prospective students even more price-conscious. However, this does not mean it is all about offering the program that costs the least. In some cases, if a program is priced too low, it can alienate an audience that correlates price with quality. Therefore, it is imperative that careful analysis of tuition costs and discounts are assessed from a marketing lens in addition to simply setting them apart from an operational perspective. In instances where tuition is standardized and cannot fluctuate to meet market demand, value should be heavily emphasized as part of the program’s positioning.

Place: This element is specific to geography. If your product is not offered to the right market, the tactics used to promote it will fall flat. As part of our Academics First® approach, the Relearnit team evaluates whether there is strong enough demand in certain geographic areas to ensure graduating students have meaningful employment opportunities and that the market isn’t too competitive for our university partners to enter.

Promotion: Even though “promotion” is what most people think of first when they consider marketing, it is the last element of a successful marketing plan because the other three Ps must be aligned first. In the post-pandemic era, multi-channel messaging that promotes flexibility and personalized student support is more critical than ever as the pandemic took a significant toll on the engagement levels of most audiences.

Universities that merely scratch the surface of the four Ps will fail to identify and employ the tactics that resonate with their ideal student segments in this increasingly competitive post-pandemic environment. Fortunately, there are many ways Relearnit can help universities succeed in their marketing efforts.

After working on in-house university marketing teams for more than a decade, I understand the limitations many teams face, including small staffing and tight budgets. In-house teams also primarily focus on positioning the university and highlighting a full portfolio of programs. Their scope of work might also include crisis communications, fundraising and event promotion.

Most universities that weren’t already in the non-traditional online student space before the pandemic are finding it difficult to enter it due to limitations they have within their structures. At Relearnit, our results typically far exceed what in-house teams can achieve for a couple of reasons.

First, because we only market certain programs to specific populations we are more focused on the program instead of university-level marketing. We can also move more quickly within our business environment than in-house university teams. 

Additionally, we usually work within a revenue share model, so the bulk of upfront expenses that come with bringing a new program to market are placed on Relearnit’s shoulders instead of our partners’. The pandemic’s steep impact has left many universities cash-poor, making them unable to invest to the level required to promote a new program. Our revenue share model provides a more sustainable entry opportunity for many of our partners.

Finally, Relearnit isn’t just a marketing agency. As a full-service OPM, marketing services are only a part of what we offer. We have a full team of specialists serving as an extension of our university partners who support students throughout their journey, from the enrollment process to earning their degrees and beyond graduation. This streamlined cycle of support, along with our unified emphasis on all four marketing Ps, is how we help guide our partners’ success. I still caution university teams that don’t have the opportunity to work within this model to step back and see where their plans align with the foundations of the four Ps before focusing on tactics. Doing so will ensure any resources spent will be worthwhile.

If you’d like to learn more about Relearnit or our marketing services, you can contact us at


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