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.