What Good is Digital Advertising in Higher Ed?

There’s so much we could say, but our short answer is this: Paid digital ads may be a powerful complement to the higher-priority elements of your branding strategy. If you’re not currently using them, it’s definitely worth considering.

Increasingly, online advertising is getting students’ attention. According to recent research from Ruffalo Noel Levitz, 45% of juniors, and 41% of seniors have clicked on a digital ad for a college. Additionally, 30% of seniors and 44% of juniors would go to a school’s website if they saw an ad but didn’t click on it. Most higher ed institutions, though, are not using online advertising as a major part of their recruiting practices. (This means your ads will stand out even more!)

While we don’t recommend moving all your advertising money into digital marketing, we do see it as a way to strengthen your brand and to reinforce important announcements like upcoming visit opportunities and application deadlines. The more often prospective students are exposed to positive presentations of your brand, the more likely they are to engage with you.

So, if you are going to pay for digital advertising, what’s the best way to make the most of it?

+ Keep your advertising part of a coordinated, multi-faceted plan. According to the RNL report, a very low percentage (12–26%) of digital ads were clicked by students who weren’t already familiar with the school. Be sure that the messaging and style are consistent with your printed materials, email campaigns, and social media initiatives.

+ Commit to adequate frequency. An occasional ad doesn’t give you the exposure you need to accomplish the purpose of your advertising. Facebook Marketing Science has conducted experimental research to help answer questions about frequency. While there’s no “magic” number, it’s important to study all the factors and make a calculated plan.  

+ Don’t skimp on creative design or copywriting. Just as today’s teens judge your school by your website, they’re rating the quality of your ads, too. Keep the message simple and compelling with the intention of getting students to your website.

+ Carefully choose your media. Ads on Google lead in student popularity, followed by various social media. Do you know where your prospective students are spending their time online? Meet them there.

+ Keep them clicking. Once you’ve gotten their attention with your ads, draw them into greater interaction through a first-rate experience with your website and opportunities to engage through social media.

Connecting with students where they live puts you on your way to the real goal—

building relationships that invite them to be part of your story.



Facebook IQ. “Effective Frequency: Reaching Full Campaign Potential.” www.facebook.com/iq. July 21, 2016.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz & OmniUpdate. (2018). 2018 E-expectations report. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Available at www.RuffaloNL.com/Expectations.

Communicating with Prospective Students via Social Media

Connecting with prospective college students today requires the strategic and successful use of social media. There are a couple of things you can’t lose sight of, though, when using these platforms to reach today’s students. To be effective, your plan has to fit the way they actually use social media. To sum it up, the experiences should be 1) interactive and 2) personalized.

Best Practices for Recruiting Gen Z Students

We know that Gen Z students are headed to college in dramatic numbers. And we know that traditional recruiting has to take on new dynamics. So what are the best ways to connect in their hyper-connected world? New in-depth reports from Ruffalo Noel Levitz offer a wealth of data. We’ve summarized some of the high points for you, along with our own insights.

Gen Z: What’s College About, Anyway?

The 70-million-and-growing Generation Z. They’ve been dubbed “world-changers,” and now they’re transforming the landscape of the college experience.

They’re tech natives. There’s no such thing as “normal.” They want to do something meaningful. And they’re mindful of the value of a dollar. So what does this mean for your university? Is your campus the kind of place they want to be?

Recruiting Parents

As parents of teenagers and college students ourselves, we’re thinking about college with fresh perspective these days. How involved are we when it’s time to start researching, visiting, and decision-making?

Will we subtly press our preferences on our children? Probably. Will we make information-gathering phone calls and website visits? Sure. Will we visit campuses? With pom-poms waving!

Fine-Tuning Your Campus Photography

Photos hold an incomparable power to tell your story. To show what your students value. To capture one-of-a-kind moments on your campus. To communicate what makes your school something special.

There’s no secret trick, no silver bullet, for a masterful photo shoot. Rather, it’s a fine art that requires careful planning and execution—along with a healthy dose of flexibility.

What's Up with College Yield Rates?

Yield rates—the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll—are important indicators to college enrollment officers as they help schools predict new student enrollment each year. After a long and steady decline in yield rates, the average seems to be stabilizing. But let’s take a look inside the numbers—and what we can do about them.

Soaring Financial Aid & Competition for Students Increasing Pressure in Higher Ed

As college recruiters scramble to keep up enrollment numbers, financial aid has become the chief competitive tool. In fact, an annual study last year by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found the average institutional discount rate for first-time, full-time freshmen in private schools reached 48.6 percent.

Is Your School Engaging Today’s Growing Minority Population?

For Gen Z students, ethic and cultural diversity is a natural part of everyday life. Minority student groups now make up more than 40% of the total college population in four-year schools. How diverse is your campus?

According to NCES reports, all categories of ethnic minorities are on the rise, while the percentage of white students is falling.

From fall 1976 to fall 2014, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 4 percent to 17 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 7 percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 percent to 14 percent, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students rose from 0.7 percent to 0.8 percent. During the same period, the percentage of White students fell from 84 percent to 58 percent. Nonresident aliens, for whom race/ethnicity is not reported, made up 5 percent of college students in 2014.

For many schools, achieving diversity is a complex issue that will involve significant strategic planning and systemic changes, but we’ve identified a few points to get you thinking about the possibilities.


Some universities near large minority populations are reaching out to local high school students through special funding. The Johns Hopkins University, for example, recognizes high-achieving Baltimore City public school graduates (a school system with 92% minority students), with scholarship assistance up to 100% for eligible students. In the University of California system, the president herself, Janet Napolitano, recruits minority students in high schools. She breaks down misconceptions about affordability by highlighting the system’s generous system of financial aid.

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell, director of Edvance Foundation, adds further perspective: “In the end, the problem may be less about specialized recruitment counselors and money than about how to fix a broken pipeline and provide a better safety net.” He suggests that four-year institutions start by partnering with community colleges,  where enrollment rates are high for minority students—creating a pathway for student transition.  (See more here about recruiting community college students.)

Care and Retention

As minority students arrive on campus, without proactive outreach in place, they may feel isolated and experience culture shock. Minority students at Northeastern University in Boston rely on the African-American cultural center on campus as a safe space to discuss racial issues. Mitchell suggests mentoring programs for black students, as well as changing staff and faculty recruiting policies.

Marketing Approaches

When prospective minority students look at your school, can they picture themselves there? Here are some tips that just touch the surface, but they’re critical if you want students to take a look below the surface and discover your school’s true heart for diversity.

  • On your website and in your recruiting materials, be sure to include photos that naturally capture the student diversity of your campus.
  • Identify affinity groups for under-represented students, and highlight organizations that welcome and celebrate ethnic diversity.
  • Feature testimonials of a wide-range of students.
  • Be intentional to include outstanding students of different ethnic groups as leaders for student recruitment events.

Growing diversity on campus reflects the multicultural world students will be entering after graduation. We encourage you to ask minority students on your campus, “How are we doing?”


National Center for Education Statistics. “Fast Facts.” https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98

The Johns Hopkins University. “The Baltimore Scholars Program.” https://baltimorescholars.jhu.edu/

Watanabe, Theresa. Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2016. “UC expands its recruiting efforts targeting black and Latino students.” http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-uc-diversity-20160205-story.html

Mitchell, Brian C. The Huffington Post, April 27, 2015, “College Minority Recruiting.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-brian-c-mitchell/college-minority-recruiti_b_7151494.html

National Center for Education Statistics. “Digest of Education Statistics.” Table 306.20. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_306.20.asp?current=yes

Krantz, Laura. Boston Globe. “Diverse campuses, but still few black students.” http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/04/24/boston-area-colleges-struggle-attract-african-americans-campus/ULApCGSF8aIn74RKnZGgUK/story.html

Re-Imagine Recruiting to Reach More Non-Traditional Students

Students age 25 and older now make up about 40% of the total college population. And their numbers are on the rise—at even faster rates than traditional students. Reaching this growing market means an intentional look at your message and your methods.

Your Marketing Message

Let them know you get it. Busy with full-time jobs, families, and other grown-up responsibilities, the biggest question for adult learners is how they can possibly take on the demands of college. Show them you understand and that you care. Share testimonials of other students like them who have navigated the program with success.

Show them you mean it. It’s no secret that non-traditional college programs have to be structured in out-of-the-box ways. And the list of requirements for this audience is not simple. In fact, a recent Ruffalo Noel Levitz survey of adult learners identified 15 factors that are rated at 70% or higher as important for enrollment in a four-year institution. Because their decision-making is a complex mix of factors, this means your marketing message can’t simply focus on the top two or three.

  • 93%        Availability of program I wanted
  • 92%        Convenient time and place for classes
  • 88%        Flexible pacing for completing a program
  • 88%        Time required to complete program
  • 86%        Availability of financial assistance
  • 85%        Ability to transfer credits
  • 85%        Requirement for current or future job
  • 84%        Cost
  • 83%        Reputation of institution
  • 80%        Availability of online courses
  • 79%        High rate of job placement
  • 78%        Program accreditation by professional organization or trade group
  • 76%        Credit for learning gained from life and work
  • 74%        Distance from campus
  • 72%        Tuition reimbursement from employer

Exceed expectations. The RNL survey also measured “performance gaps” in adult learner satisfaction. While these students are largely satisfied with their non-traditional programs, there are identified areas for improvement. Topping the lists were variables such as: the opportunity to self-pace coursework, availability of course offerings within a program, and timely feedback from instructors. Can your institution shine in communicating these factors?

Your Marketing Methods

Keep it personal. When institutions ranked top methods for generating inquiries, face-to-face information sessions were rated as the number one most effective method by far for private and public four-year institutions. While referral programs and website forms were next for private schools, public institutions indicated more success with open house events and off-campus group meetings. Phone calls and personalized email messages were the most effective follow-up practices.

Customize the technology. An article by Craig Maslowsky, CEO and Founder of New Ed, explains that marketing resources for adult students “must be optimized to enhance the student’s experience, and designed in a way that they felt understood.” This includes particular attention to website design and content, search engine optimization, and CRM.

Is it time to re-imagine your marketing message and methods for reaching this critical audience? Let's talk about how we might collaborate with you and make an immediate impact.



National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics: 2014. Table 303.40. www.nces.ed.gov.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2015). 2015 adult learner marketing and recruitment practices benchmark report. Coralville, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Retrieved from www.noellevitz.com/BenchmarkReports.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2016). 2015-16 adult learners report. Cedar Rapids: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. www.ruffalonl.com.

The Evolllution (2017). Top Five Ways to Market Higher Education to Adult Students. www.evolllution.com.

Higher Ed Marketing in the Gap Year

With enrollment in gap year programs up 23% since 2015, if your institution is overlooking this trend, then you may be missing a key contingent of prospective students. While the idea of a “year off” between high school and college is not new, what’s different is the breadth of students the idea is attracting. An investigative report with Katie Couric finds that the gap year is “not just for rich kids anymore.”

Will Your Admissions Materials Stand Out in a Crowded Mailbox/Inbox?

How could two universities—one in Buffalo, New York, and the other in Sydney, Australia—come up with marketing campaigns that look almost interchangeable? That’s the question presented in a recent article, “Your Future Starts Here. Or Here. Or Here” in Inside Higher Ed.