Marketing for Higher Education: Tips for Increasing Enrollment During a Pandemic

08.26.2020 Cox Media

From prestigious four-year universities to local technical colleges, higher education has been turned upside-down by the pandemic and its complications. Social distancing guidelines have created challenges in providing safe, in-person instruction in virtually any field of study. Meanwhile, parents have greater concerns about sending their children to live on a campus where they may face a greater risk of contracting the virus.

As a result, enrollment remains an ongoing challenge for higher education institutions—and these challenges of enrollment may persist into 2021. To improve these numbers and preserve the financial integrity of these institutions, recruiting and enrollment offices should invest into advertising that directly addresses the concerns of prospective students and parents, while also shifting their focus toward students, communities and audiences that offer the best potential rate of enrollment.

Looking for tips to shape these ad campaigns and their messaging? Here are four ideas to consider.


At almost every level of higher education, online and distance learning courses have greatly expanded in availability in recent years. In the pandemic, this catalog of accessible courses is an asset your institution should highlight in all of its advertising.

Position these remote learning and even hybrid course offerings as a way for students to keep advancing in their education while being mindful of social distancing and lowering their risk of exposure. For institutions that have seen a drop in enrollment from communities or regions where they typically draw high interest, ad campaigns can specifically target these locations and potentially increase virtual enrollment among populations of students who might otherwise live on campus in normal circumstances.


One prominent trend of higher learning during a pandemic is the changing composure of the enrolled student body, in terms of how far they are traveling to attend school. Early enrollment numbers suggest that more students are staying close to home during the pandemic, versus moving across the country and becoming more geographically isolated from their families.

At schools where a large segment of their student population comes from out-of-state, ad strategies may need to shift away from those typical recruiting hotspots and focus more on local prospective students, in hopes that winning recruits on their home turf can bolster enrollment numbers that are otherwise liable to shrink.


If you’re holding in-person classes on your campus, you can’t engage prospective students and their parents without addressing new safety concerns head-on. The specific safety measures can vary widely based on the setup of your institution: schools that have a large body of on-campus students, for example, have much greater challenges when it comes to ensuring safety in dorms, cafeterias, and other highly trafficked areas than at institutions where most or all of the students are commuters.

Use the safety protocols and strategies developed by your institution as bullet-point highlights you can call out in your ad strategy. Students and their parents want to know that any prospective institution is taking the necessary measures to keep everyone safe and limit the risk on-campus students face during the pandemic.


Most colleges and universities have a large body of former students who quit attending the institution without earning their degree or transferring elsewhere. These students, known as “stop-outs,” can be the target audience with a valuable campaign strategy that fits perfectly with the challenges being faced during the public health crisis.

According to Inside Higher Ed, a number of institutions across the country had already been targeting stop-outs through marketing and advertising campaigns with growing intensity in recent years. About 90 percent of stop-outs do have an interest in earning whatever degree program they started, but various complications and barriers have disrupted those goals. 

Colleges and universities already have the contact info, including email addresses, for their body of stopped-out students, so these individuals can be easily engaged through owned media channels such as email, along with digital remarketing channels using display, social media, and other advertising. Highlight the convenience of your online or hybrid courses. And you can use other ad channels to promote your institution as a place where stopped-out students from other schools can transfer and easily earn their degree—while getting whatever additional support or resources they may need.


There’s no question that the pandemic has created significant complications and challenges for institutions of higher education, presenting increased costs of operation alongside new challenges in hitting enrollment goals. But this fast-changing landscape also offers opportunities to experiment with new educational and business models that may offer short-term benefits while identifying long-term strategies for success.

Much of your success depends on your ability to engage the right students and reach your enrollment goals. A digital advertising strategy is crucial to this success. Contact us today to see how we can help.


About the Author

Cox Media

Connect with a Marketing Expert

Connect With Your Local Marketing Expert

You know your business. We know advertising. Together, we can bring your business to more people. Contact a member of our team today. We’d love to help you grow.