How to Market a College in 2020

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a huge disruption in higher education. Students who would be on their way to a traditional on-campus semester are now taking online classes and adjusting to distance learning. 

With over 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, the competition to attract prospective students is increasing and with the added circumstances of a shifting online student population, online institutions in particular have their own unique challenges when trying to get in front of target audiences. 

Whether you’re an online or on-ground university, attracting students to your program in 2020 and 2021 is going to require innovative and creative marketing strategies.

Who is a Prospective Student?

To effectively attract new students, it’s important to first identify prospective students. Prospective students are students who are interested in your university’s program and are at some level of the student journey funnel. 

It’s important to understand the search intent and needs of a student at each level of the funnel.

  • Awareness – This individual does not yet know they want to pursue a higher education degree. They might not even be aware of your school yet
  • Familiarity – Individual is aware of a higher education degree within their focus but hasn’t made the decision to pursue. 
  • Consideration – Individual knows they want/need to pursue a degree. They are considering specific types of degrees and institutions. This student is more likely to be familiar with your school and brand. 
  • Choice – Individual is making a choice on which institution to pursue their degree.

From a higher level lens, there are two types of prospective students– those who are aware of your school and those who are not. Initially the goal is for both types to choose your college/university. And even if the goal is the same, the approach should be slightly different.

What Are Prospective Students Looking For?

Awareness Tactics

Those who are not yet aware of your school and are still looking around will benefit the most from paid media and strategic inbound marketing. To increase brand and program awareness there are a few things colleges and universities should do.

1. Paid Media

It’s no secret that Pay-per-click (PPC) is a great channel to use in order to introduce new prospective students with schools and their programs. It works exactly the same way when new brands and businesses want to be found by customers. 

Google Adwords, Bing, Linkedin, Facebook and Instagram are main channels to go for. By creating a strategic lead generating PPC campaign, universities can increase the number of students signing up for programs or seeking more information.The only drawback of using these channels is the cost.

2. Inbound Marketing

Higher education institutions should also make sure their websites are optimized for on-page SEO. Strategic interlinking throughout program pages and content can help a user feel connected in the ecosystem of your site and be interested in learning more about your brand.

Familiarity Tactics 

Students who are aware of your institution most likely have a list of schools and programs they are interested in. The first place they will seek more information is the school’s website. To remain effective, higher education website should be:

1. Mobile Friendly

As of 2019, 55.9 percent of the time spent on websites comes from desktop users, compared to 40.1 percent for mobile users. That’s a little less than half of all searchers who are going to be looking at your site through their mobile devices

Having an easy to navigate and mobile friendly website is a key not only for a user, but also for search engines. Google values and prefers sites who are optimized for a mobile experience

2. Valuable and Informative Content

When creating content, schools should not forget who they are trying to reach. The content should focus on the reader and provide insightful information, tips, and best practice guides, news and other. In other words, always consider what a student wants to know rather than what an institution wants to inform a student.

It’s useful to think back to that student journey funnel when creating informative content. Speak to students where they’re at. Students who are top of the funnel will be attracted to career or broad industry outlook topics; whereas, students near the bottom of the funnel will be interested in how their career or degree is related to current events or what kind of direct impact they can have in their field.

3. Good User Experience

Colleges and universities websites usually are quite large and complex. By making sure the website has a clear navigation system with the most important pages no further than 3 clicks away from the home page a search box, and a request form on the homepage provides an easier flow through the website and a better user experience.

Interlinking is another great way to create a good UX. By developing a clear path for the user that is informative and addresses the needs of that user throughout every step of the way, you create a better experience for them and invite them to stay on your site longer.

3 Ways to Attract Prospective Students

There are many ways to reach future students. Traditional methods such as high schools visits, educational fairs and print material are still very useful way to market colleges and universities.  However, these methods might not be enough to make a university stand out among competitors. To reach prospective students where it will make an impact requires a tailored approach to the incoming students media habits.

1. Use Social Media Platforms


Instagram is one of the most used social media platforms today across generations and populations. The platform has reached one billion users in 2018 and has steadily continued to grow. 

Universities can use the platform to share engaging and branding images and videos such as geographic images and spotlights of a school’s location. Universities can also showcase student life and campus activities and engage with users who comment and share on the platform.


Tik-Tok is a newer platform that has skyrocketed in popularity among Gen-Z and Millennials. Many universities are jumping on the bandwagon to get in front of a younger audience. Tik-Tok can be a way to engage prospective students who want a real look at the student life experience.

Universities can use Tik-Tok to share videos of sports games, campus life, research projects and new developments in programs. With strategic hashtagging, universities can generate a consistent following and have wide appeal to prospective students. 

2. Appeal to Students with Videos

Blogs and other written content are still relevant and very important for digital marketing. Schools should use as many ways to interact and connect with millennials. Live videos are a great way to do so. It allows viewers immediately engage with current events. A lot of higher education institutions already publish various content to Youtube, but live streaming that functions similar as Snapchat could support the interaction with potential students and alumni right here and right now by showing schools’ events, lectures and other creative content.

3. Use Influencers and College Ambassadors

From Marketing Chart’s recent study, millennials rely on word of mouth more than other adults when researching consumer goods. This study could identify millennials trusting only honest and true opinions by the people they respect and look up to. Today there are so many influencers in various areas starting from entrepreneurs to style blogs. Higher education institutions should keep relationships with alumni and try to follow their journey after the graduation. By keeping close relationships with influencers is a way to attract their followers to the school. Schools should organize panel style meetings with influencers where they could share their experiences with audience and answer their questions. This type of relationship would promote different school programs and brand awareness.

The Future of Higher Education

Millennials and Gen-Z students tend to choose brands that have a clear voice, character and are creative. With today’s technologies, social media platforms and apps there are endless ways colleges and universities could promote their school and program, as well as show their personality to prospective students.