Jeff Abraham is VP, Marketing and Admissions at Education Management Corporation, and a member of LinkedIn’s Higher Education Management Group. 

KH: The marketing practices of for-profit colleges and universities are often cited as one of the ways these institutions differ from traditional colleges and universities.  Can you describe these differences?

JA: From my perspective as an employee in the for-profit sector, I see the primary differences as being strategic as opposed to tactical, and extending beyond marketing, to admissions, financial aid, academic affairs, and student services.

Even when they use more aggressive tactics to generate greater inquiry and applicant volume, traditional schools still seem to concentrate on the applicant selection process to build a freshman class according to various parameters.  Proprietary schools, on the other hand, focus on growth, through an open or minimally selective admissions process, and by expanding program offerings and delivery methods.  As a result, when a proprietary school “casts a wider net” with marketing and advertising, and generates greater inquiry volume, those inquiries become more applicants and more students, since we don’t place limits on enrollment.  A traditional school that expands its marketing budget might see a freshman class that better meets its goal by some degree, but with the same volume of students.

That being said, as the parent of a 17-year-old high school senior who receives between five and ten recruitment letters every week, it appears that the traditional educational marketing plan still relies heavily on direct mail, which represents a tiny percentage of the marketing at most proprietary schools.  While I see many examples of excellent web sites for traditional schools, which probably serve the purpose of providing in-depth information to visitors, I do not see many examples of traditional schools actively using web advertising – the primary marketing tool used by proprietary schools – to drive traffic to those web sites, which strikes me as a missed opportunity.  As a result, the web sites of those schools probably serve the market that was already predisposed to learn about the school, as opposed to being “portals” by which people who never have thought about the school can learn more.

Finally, because of the business focus at proprietary schools, my understanding is that we devote significantly greater resources, in data capture and technology and people, toward tracking results and identifying what works, so we can continually enhance our operational effectiveness by spending more on what works, and less on what does not.

KH: With the rapid rise of the for-profit providers, do you see traditional institutions mimicking these practices?

JA: I believe that some of the education market always will self-select, meaning that for some people a traditional college or university experience will be the only consideration, and for some people a non-traditional education will be the only consideration.  However, I also believe that the middle segment of the education market – those for whom neither of these two options is the only option – will continue to grow over time.  The schools that make a commitment to serving that segment, and communicating that commitment as part of their marketing strategy, will prosper, whether they are traditional or proprietary.

Furthermore, as the population of graduating high school seniors begins to decline over the next few years, all but the strongest traditional schools – those which regularly have significantly more applicants than they can accept, and/or which have significant endowments that make budgets less important – will have to decide whether they want to expand their offerings and broaden their marketing strategy, or simply “maintain” their current situation, which often leads to a slow decline that can be very difficult to reverse, once it begins.

There are many examples of proprietary schools that emphasize business over education to the degree that the schools fail, either through practices that result in sanctions, or because they lose their students to schools that offer better services.  At the same, there are many examples of traditional schools that emphasize education over solid business practices that also fail, because no organization can survive over time while losing money and/or not investing in infrastructure and people to maintain a competitive position in the marketplace.


Jeff Abraham has worked in proprietary education for 24 years, first at a single school in New York City, and since 1988 with Education Management Corporation, which is the parent company of The Art Institutes, Argosy University, Brown Mackie Colleges, and South University.  He currently holds the title of EDMC Vice-President of Marketing/Admissions Operations, working at the corporate offices in Pittsburgh, PA, and in that capacity coordinates planning, operational reporting and analysis, and operations/process design and support, while serving as the functional liaison to the Information Technology Department for marketing and admissions. 

4 thoughts on “Jeff Abraham on Marketing Practices of Traditional and Proprietary Schools

  1. One consideration I’m certain some of my clients would pass along is that public institutions might see value in casting a wider net, but the results may in fact be damaging.

    Having more inquiries and applications might mean more students, however, as student apply to more and more schools to broaden their own scope of opportunity, schools want to ensure their resources aren’t allocated to chasing kids destined for another school. “Stealth applicants” pose a serious challenge to institutions and resource-challenged admissions departments seek applications from best-fit students; not every kid who can fill out an online form.

    Also, state-funded schools have to be careful in offering admission to students. Selection of ‘anyone’ can have drastic implications long-term. A large freshman class is not an indicator of successful recruitment; a large graduating class 4 years later is! Adding more, unqualified students, is certain to have retention issues which bring funding, reputation, administrative, and academic problems to the forefront.

    To summarize, the argument that a wider net ought to be cast has merit; however, I propose that the net in question needs not only to be wider but better!


  2. I think Jeff is “spot on” with his differentiation of marketing techniques between traditionals and for-profits. I also believe that, in some cases, traditionals are attempting to mimic the strategies currently employed by the for-profits. The challenge lies, not necessarily in the width of the net, but in the resources devoted to understandiing prospective student needs and the service provided to them throughout the student life cycle.

    There are so many variables involved that it’s difficult to generalize. In many cases the traditional school could capture a much larger market because of the brand recognition already in place. Yet they often fail to do so. Some of the obstacles include, lack of a seamless admissions process, websites that are difficult to navigate and/or track, limited follow up on inquiries, challenges with course scheduling and pre-requisites, inadequate database management systems, timeliness to react, and the fact that everyone in the university hasn’t embraced the value of applying a business model to an academic institution. These are just a few of the symptoms.

    It doesn’t have to be an “either or” approach to student growth and retention (traditional or for-profit). There are best practices employed by both sides that are very valuable. I’ve worked with both for-profits and traditional colleges and universities for about 15 years. The best outcomes occur when any school is open to looking at a new way of doing things.

    Thanks, Jeff, for sharing your thoughts.


  3. While clear differences exist between the way most traditional, campus based institutions and proprietary schools market their programs, (as Heather correctly points out) there is an undeniable intersection between these two worlds. The exploding Career Ed market has caught the eye of a number of enterprising “traditional” schools who understand that these Professional Services divisions are a tremendous source of revenue. University of Massachusetts, University of Maryland (UMUC), and Drexel are just few examples of schools that have already made significant inroads into the “proprietary” landscape and they successfully employ many of the same marketing tactics that are used by leading proprietary institutions. Many more traditional schools have dipped their toes in the for-profit waters by forming joint ventures with full service online course developers who private label a core set of programs. These firms (not the schools) also market the courses and certainly know how to “cast a wide net.” As the competition for undergrad, campus based enrollments gets tougher, forward thinking traditional schools are going to be vying for a bigger piece of proprietary pie. If you look at the amount of venture cap that has flowed into the Higher Ed space in the past few years, you can be assured that savvy marketers are scattered throughout the industry. Traditional institutions are investing in new career focused divisions dedicated to professional ed and they bringing in talent from the Corporate world to market them. It will be interesting to observe the role that branding ultimately plays in Higher Ed marketing and recruitment down the road. Will the cache that has always been associated with a degree from a more recognizable traditional institution continue to play a significant role? Will new players emerge that create lasting value around their brands? Does branding even matter if you are taking a course in order to get a promotion or add a specific skill? Instead, will cost and greater transparency via the Internet lead to the emergence of a price driven marketplace where enrollments are driven by value and ROI? This is a great topic to discuss. Thank you, Jeff, for getting the ball rolling.


  4. The higher educational system is historically slow to pick up one progressive approaches to marketing, often with good reason. When conpared to the private sector, their “outreach” budgets are exceedingly small, so the fear of investing into new, unproven applications is justified. However, the wonderful thing about digital applications is their cost efficiency and creative uses to address significant problems facing admissions. One of those issues is the stealth applicant and there may be a practical solution called “retargeting” to address it.

    What is Retargeting?

    Simple Definition: Re-connecting a publisher with past website visitors so there is an increased likelihood of a completed desired action or transaction.

    Inherently, visitors to a website have expressed an interest in the institution since they went through the effort to find and visit it. With the placement of a simple code on select pages of the website, retargeting enables a school to identify visitors and repeatedly expose them to specific messaging that’s relevant to the previously expressed interest on the school site. That expressed interest could be admissions, financial aid, identifing an admissions contact, etc.

    How retargeting works

    When a visitor comes to the website, a simple “pixel” code is placed in their browser which identifies them and records which site “pages” they have viewed. Within minutes of these visitors going to any other non-school website (like Facebook or their favorite entertainment site) banner ads can be served instantly displaying the schools precise message inviting them back to their site, or redirect them to another landing page designed to provide specific, relevant content. This works extremely well when the messaging is relevant to their original interests….especially when they were considering an action-step (like downloading an application or financial aid info).

    The concept is simple, requires little effort from the admissions staff, and is amazingly efficient (affordable). For the sake of transparency, I am a provider of this (and other) on-line services and wish to supply this information for the sake of discussion and education, not as a sales presentation. Google the topic and do your own due-diligence.


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