Tactics and Strategies for Marketing Alternative Higher Education Programs

The higher education landscape is evolving, driven by innovation, economics, and changing attitudes among today’s students and a labor market that increasingly prioritizes job-ready skills. 

The high cost of earning a traditional bachelor’s degree, the gap between college graduates’ skills and employers’ expectations, and today’s tight labor market are combining to drive unprecedented interest in alternative education programs (AEPs). A growing number of cost-conscious, career-minded students are skipping college and opting to attend AEPs instead, for example:

  • Coding bootcamps from providers such as Fullstack Academy, StackRoute Learning, and Revature that teach coding and digital skills like web development, data science, and cybersecurity
  • Certificate programs from universities and companies in fields like tech, business, and healthcare 
  • Individual online courses from providers like Coursera, Udacity, and Cloud Academy in subjects that include data science, business, and graphic design

As employers shift away from requiring college degrees to focusing more on skills and experience, a traditional four-year degree is no longer the only gateway to professional advancement. According to Indeed, 72% of employers consider bootcamp graduates to be just as likely to perform at a high level as computer science degree grads, while 12% say bootcamp grads are more prepared than degree-holders. Only 17% expressed doubts about their qualifications.

It’s no surprise, then, that short-form programs focused on talent development are proliferating — and competing with degree programs for students. The challenge for higher ed marketers is to capture the attention of students interested in AEPs and get them to enroll in their programs — without busting their marketing budgets.

Marketers interested in how to market bootcamps and AEPs should know that, while AEP marketing is somewhat similar to traditional higher ed marketing, there are key differences between the two.

Connecting With the Target Audience

The audience for tech bootcamps and other AEPs is different from the audience for traditional four-year degree programs. Appealing to this audience requires tactics optimized to appeal to students in the market for fast, affordable, and specialized skills. 

Career starters and career upskillers are the target audience for AEPs, which can encompass generations that range from high school graduates looking to bypass college to experienced professionals looking to change fields. 

To make their institution or company’s AEPs stand out, higher ed marketers will want to emphasize features like speed to completion, flexibility, and return on investment, as they are key considerations for these students and should be spotlighted with strong creative messaging. Moreover, AEP digital marketing campaigns typically urge prospects to act quickly and “enroll now” by highlighting upcoming start dates in their web ads and program websites. 

Competition for AEP students is extremely high, from both other alternative offerings and traditional degree programs. Alternative education programs are showing rapid year-over-year query growth in Google search trends, even outperforming search queries for traditional degrees in some cases. Higher ed marketers need to capture this growing search traffic and funnel prospects to enrollment. 

Crafting a Strong Messaging Strategy

Search traffic for alternative ed programs is inherently different from that for traditional degree programs. Because AEP prospects may be high up in the enrollment funnel, marketers need to cast a wide search net and employ strong creative messaging that’s frequently refreshed to capture potential leads. As marketers know, casting a wide net can get expensive. Add to that the fact that AEPs have lower profit margins than traditional degree programs, and cost per lead (CPL) becomes a major consideration. 

To capture prospects while staying within budget, marketers should be creative in their approach by exploring alternative channels that offer a lower CPL. Institutions can work to maintain cost-effective traffic by employing a broad target strategy that uses efficient traffic sources. They can explore alternative channels such as Reddit, TikTok (to reach younger audiences), LinkedIn (for career changers and upskillers), and paid social media ads. By leveraging pop-up lead generation ads, marketing campaigns can achieve a high volume of leads at a cost that’s lower than that of traditional ad-to-landing page campaigns.

Understanding and speaking differently to each audience for alternative education programs is critical, such as distinguishing between career starters and career upskillers when targeting prospective audiences for technology bootcamps, with unique goals and messaging needed for each. 

Keyword use is another area where marketing strategies for AEPs and traditional programs differ. Because the target audience for AEPs is high in the enrollment funnel, it’s best to use more general field-of-study keyword terms like “coding training” and “learn to code,” or, for human resources certificates, “DEI training” and “conflict resolution,” as opposed to traditional degree-program keywords like “MBA” or “RN to BSN” that are widely recognizable and potentially more expensive.

Driving Efficiency in the Funnel

Once a broad search and strong creative messaging have generated healthy lead traffic without blowing the program’s marketing budget, the challenge is to move those leads through the funnel efficiently to enrollment. This is exactly where many bootcamps and certificate programs fail. That’s because many alternative education programs lack the infrastructure to enroll interested people and have complex and often confusing platforms. 

Moreover, tools used by traditional enrollment marketers like call centers and one-on-one outreach are expensive and not cost-effective for the lower-margin alternative education market. Instead, lead nurturing for AEPs needs to be low cost and scalable, appeal to a wide range of demographics, and function outside the traditional 9-to-5 time frame. 

To reach enrollment goals, marketers must remove barriers to progress through the funnel while keeping prospects engaged along their journey.

Engaging AEP Learners

Interest in coding bootcamps, certificates, and short courses is booming because they provide unique value and opportunities for today’s students. Alternative education programs can also provide opportunities for higher ed institutions that can effectively market to this unique and growing audience and guide them toward enrollment. 

Archer Education has a team of experts that can help alternative education programs realize their enrollment goals while staying on budget. Our Onward engagement platform delivers custom digital experiences to potential students by creating personalized communications that empower outreach and follow-up, building on what prospects have shared about themselves. Contact us to learn more about how our team can help you win in this growing market.