Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

Affordability and Higher Education Marketing

If you work in higher education marketing today you can't miss the increased public concern over rising costs in both private and public sector colleges and universities. And yet despite that increased concern, marketing strategies seldom extend to developing content that focuses specifically on "affordability." 

To help people compare schools, the U.S. Department of Education has an interactive College Affordability and Transparency Center.

Price is still an issue that many if not most schools like to avoid discussing in detail until as late in the student recruitment cycle as possible. Given the high level of interest in cost, that's a marketing mistake.

But there are exceptions to the avoidance syndrome. Today we note 5 examples of how a few schools have elected to deal directly with affordability on their websites. I'd expect to see more like these in the future and possible some combining the best of the different features you'll find here.

5 Affordability Marketing Content Examples

American University

In a series of strong graphic presentations, American highlights reduced tuition increases over the past 10 years (from 6.5 percent in 2005 to 2.9 percent in 20013 and 2014) as well as a strong shift from merit aid to need-based awards, low default rates and more. 

The message in the graphics is strong enough that you don't really have to read the text below them. And that's a boon for impatient web visitors. See College Affordability: AU and Your Educational Goals.

Wellesley College

While every school is required to have a net cost calculator on the website, legions of potential students and their parents fail to complete them because most are to close to the equivalent of completing the FAFSA form itself. 

Wellesley takes a different approach with a "Quick College Cost Estimator" that requires just 7 steps to receive an estimate of how much a family might have to pay to send a child to Wellesley. See the basic info required at My inTuition: Wellesley's Quick College Cost Estimator.

Calvin College

You don't have to search far to find complaints among higher ed professionals that too many people only pay attention to a schools "sticker" price without realizing that very few people pay that price. 

Calvin attacks that problem directly as their page opens with a large "Cutting the Price Tag" heading. Everything that follows (down to outcomes results and low loan default rates) is on a single page that combines easy-to-read graphics with clear language that is remarkably free of higher ed jargon. See a strong example of "Writing Right for the Web" at Calvin's Cutting the Price Tag page.

University of Findlay

At Findlay the goal is to directly attack 5 "affordability myths" that start with the average cost difference between a student attending Findlay ($21,500) and one attending "state schools" ($19,600) or "other private schools in the region" ($23,200). 

The myths also include indebtedness at graduation and high loan default rates with graphs that show a default rate for Findlay grads, for instance, of less than 5 percent with comparisons to much higher Ohio and national rates. Review the other myths attacked at Findlay's Affordability Myths page.

When you visit, be sure to follow the link to the "Total Degree Cost Calculator" for an estimate of four-year degree costs that's included with the first myth.

Ball State University

Despite lower costs compared to private sector schools public universities are not immune to affordability concerns. Reductions in state funding often have meant increases in tuition and other charges. More than a few people feel that public universities have not done enough to reduce operating costs before resorting to tuition increases.

Ball State tackles the PR challenge with content to demonstrate "fiscal stewardship" that has let it lower tuition while maintaining quality education. That's rather a "man bites dog" assertion compared to more prevalent positions that fewer resources create quality declines. For more see "Ensuring Affordability, Now."

That's all for now.

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Hello to old and new readers. 

With application deadlines passed for many and financial aid award letters soon to be sent the recruitment season for high school students here in the U.S. is heading toward the final stages and attention to yield is increasing. One large university expects to enroll the same number of new freshmen this year as last despite a 40 percent application drop. See the Drexel story below.

"Improving Your Strategic Recruitment Communication Plan" is a new Academic Impressions conference set for Houston June 1-3. Details at 

The fifth "Writing Write for the Web" conference with Academic Impressions takes place in San Diego July 13-14. Check the agenda at 

The eduWeb Digital Summit happens in Chicago July 27-30. Conference website is

Invite a friend or colleague to subscribe to this newsletter. Send them to 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for March. 
College Rankings Mash-UP Machine: From Prestige to Party Scene

Thanks to your friends at The Chronicle of Higher Education you can now see the top 15 U.S. colleges and universities in 7 ratings areas on a single interactive chart: Prestige, Global Influence, Fat Paychecks, Value Added, Social Impact, Return on Investment, and Party Scene.

Even more fun: mix and match the ratings categories. The top Fat Paycheck award, for instance, goes to Harvey Mudd College. Combine Fat Paycheck and Party Scene and the winner is Lehigh University.

See "Make Your Own College Rankings" at 
New Freshmen "Backgrounds and Beliefs": An Interactive Guide to UCLA Data

While the info on these charts dates back to the 1970s marketers will want to pay special attention to changes over the last 5 to 10 years in this easy-to-use display from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Interest in making "more money" and getting a "better job" are stronger now and reinforce the need for more attention to outcomes information. Data confirms the growing increase in multiple applications. More students are not attending their first or second choice schools. While you will see an increase in students enrolling more than 500 miles from their homes the percent was still only 16.3 percent in 2014.

Check your favorites among the 17 possibilities at 
Email Marketing Benchmarks: Open Rate and Click Rate

This HubSpot report shows a relationship between the frequency of email campaigns and their success as measured by open rates and click rates. 

In business to consumer email campaigns, the highest open rate (35 percent) went to those sending 6 to 15 emails a month. The highest click rates (just under 6 percent) went to those sending 16 to 30 emails each month. Weakest click rate results fell to those sending just one to 5 emails per month.

Comparing these results with my secret shopping activity tells me that most colleges have room to spare in increasing contact frequency, particularly immediately after receiving an inquiry. Visit the HubSpot benchmark report at 
Logo Design: 10 Design Trends for 2015

If you are a logo fan you will not want to review these 10 trend examples. See if you can find a favorite at 
Drexel University: Deliberately Reducing Freshman Applications by 40 Percent

Drexel University has deliberately reduced 47,000 applications received for the 2014 entering class to 27,000. And no, they are not trying to reduce the number of new students enrolled.

The new strategy puts emphasis on recruiting new students from a smaller applicant pool with a higher level of interest in Drexel. Key to the change was dropping a "fast app" program in place for several years that made it especially easy for students to apply. Other changes include more need-based aid, an application fee, and admissions criteria that differ by academic programs.

More on the Drexel change at 
Landing Page Copy: 4 "Expert Tips" for Increased ROI

Landing pages are critical to successful online advertising. 

You do not want to spend time and money on creative and careful audience selection only to send people to a poor landing page. Most especially you do not ever want to drop people into a regular page on your website unrelated to your advertisement.

To improve the ROI of your online advertising, check your present landing pages against the recommendations in this article by Amanda Durepos. My favorite tip: "Skip the superlatives" that will kill your credibility.

Read more on superlatives and 3 other expert tips at 
Financial Aid Award Policy: Details from 25 High Endowment Schools

Compare your financial aid award policy with the practices of the 25 best endowed colleges and universities on this interactive chart, again from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Pay special attention to the variations in loan packaging to meet financial need, from none at all to different family income cut-off points.

Visit "The Financial-Aid Fine Print" at 
Gerry McGovern on FAQs: Dinosaurs of Web Navigation

FAQs date from a time when people did not know how to create decent web navigation to help visitors find what they wanted to find on a website. Today they often continue because they are a convenient dumping place for content creators. Sometimes they are simply used for what Gerry refers to as "propaganda." I am always amused when an FAQ section starts with "What is your mission?"

If you need help to reduce reliance on FAQs on your website, circulate Gerry's New Thinking column at 

For another view on why FAQs represent navigation failure see the column by Sarah Richards at 
Creating a Value Proposition: Guidelines from HubSpot

Liberal arts colleges are often told to improve their competitive positions by promoting a "value proposition" that will convince people to enroll. But good examples of that are few and far between.

Whether you already have value proposition content on your website or are planning for the future, spend time to review and discuss the points in this HubSpot infographic. Note especially the admonition that a value proposition is not a positioning statement. Note also that a value proposition should speak directly to the benefits of buying something from your school as opposed to your competitors. 

Done right, a value proposition brings marketing strength. Visit "How to Write a Great Value Proposition" at 
Content Marketing: 9 Lessons from Old-Style Journalism

Here is an article from the Content Marketing Institute to remind us that success in new endeavors often, perhaps always, benefits from the best of past practices.

I found the "minimize distractions" point especially interesting as it also borrows from direct marketing principles. The lesson: clean and simple always wins. Avoid excess calls to action and any other bells and whistles that might detract a person from the main point of your content and the action you want people to take. 

Review 8 more lessons, including the always vital "know your audience," at 
Cartoon of the Month: Media Planners 

Is your media planning up-to-date? 

The cartoon this month pokes fun at just how long it takes some marketers to get current with media trends. See what we can hope is a very inaccurate picture of how things work on your campus at 
Most Popular Topic in February Newsletter: 9 Top Task Higher Ed Websites

People flocked to the list of 9 colleges and universities in 3 countries that have created unusually strong task-oriented web pages (home pages, admissions, faculty, parents, study abroad and more) at 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. 
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC

Increase your marketing success with these services. Contact me for details at 

Communication Audits
Expert Marketing Communications Website Reviews
Top Task Website Design Research with Gerry McGovern
Writing Right for the Web: Webinars, Conferences, and Campus Workshops
Competitive Website Reviews and Secret Shopping Projects
Drexel University decides 47,477 apps are too many

I can't quite remember when it started but once upon a time colleges and universities were first offered the opportunity to send "fast app" application forms to high school students who had not applied for admission. The apps were pretty much completely filled out in advance. About all you had to do was click and send to the school you received it from. No application fee was required.

As a way to boost the size of an application pool the "fast app" was a singular success. 

Some schools, it is said, just used the technique to boost application numbers and become more selective. Conversion percents almost always were much lower than for people who completed applications themselves. But if a school didn't care as much about conversions as the appearance of high demand and lower acceptance rates then conversion percent was not a problem. And some schools indeed used the extra apps to raise enrollment as Drexel once did.

Now comes recent news that Drexel University has decided to drop out of this system. You can get the details at "Drexel's freshmen applicants plunge - happily." Adopting the "fast app" in the 2005-06 recruitment cycle contributed to a 300 percent application increase. Even with a lower conversion rate overall freshmen enrollment also grew. But now goals have changed.

According to Randall Deike, new senior VP for enrollment management and student success, Drexel will now place more emphasis on the proverbial "better fit" to boost retention rates. That, of course, will help maintain or grow total enrollment. And Drexel has a wee bit of extra money by saving the cost of the "fast app" program.

20,052 Fewer Applications

For the freshman class that entered in 2014 Drexel had 47,477 applications... 2,925 were enrolled from that number. For the freshman class that will enroll in 2015 Drexel has 27,425 applications, or a drop of well over 40 percent. 

Reducing the applicant total is one part of a new strategy that includes adding back an application fee, using different admissions criteria for different academic programs, and shifting more financial resources to need-based aid.

A Smart Marketing Move?

Will Drexel be able to maintain the same freshman class size in 2015 as in 2014? 

We'll find out later this year. Right now some people understandably are nervous. But I'd bet that with more attention to a reduced applicant pool with a higher percent of genuinely interested people, Drexel will do just fine.

In 2011 the NY Times reported in "A College Opts Out of the Admissions Arms Race" that Ursinus College had made a similar change: dropping the fast app to reduce applications. Today, Ursinus reports that freshmen class size has increased. Very different schools indeed but one small encouragement for folks at Drexel.

That's all for now.

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" for monthly marketing news and notes and weekly Link of the Week selections.

Join 6,800+ people and follow me on Twitter

"Improving Your Strategic Recruitment Communications Plan"

Join us at this Academic Impressions conference June 1-3. Review the program details and register here.
A February hello to subscribers new and old as admission application deadlines have arrived or are approaching for many of you. Best wishes that the quality and quantity of the applications meets your goals.

Attend the Academic Impressions conference on "Improving Your Strategic Recruitment Communication Plan" with myself and Paige Booth (St. Edward's University) and Michelle O'Donnell (Mount St. Mary's University) in Houston June 1-3. Details at 

The Call for Papers for the eduWeb Digital Summit in July in Chicago is extended until February 19. More about the conference and the paper submission process is 

Know someone who will like this newsletter? Send them to subscribe at 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for February.
Top Online Bachelor's and MBA Programs: US News and World Report

New rankings came out early last month, with Penn State World Campus in first place for bachelor's programs and a three-way MBA tie for first: Indiana University Bloomington, Temple University, and UNC Chapel Hill. 

Bachelor's programs ranking elements include Faculty Credentials and Training, Student Services and Technology, and Student Engagement. MBA program ranking use those criteria and add Admissions Selectivity.

See the US News rankings at 
9 University Websites: Top Task Design Champions

Top Task website design is based on a simple principle: the most prominent words and links on website pages should reflect the top tasks that bring visitors to those pages and help people complete those tasks as quickly as possible.

In this blog post I have collected 9 strong top task examples from Australia, Canada, and the U.S., including home pages, admissions, parents, donor options, faculty profiles, scholarships, and academic programs. Visit 
Advertising Online: 6 "Deadly Errors" to Avoid on Facebook

This is a report from a person who has been advertising on Facebook since ads started in 2010 and reports losing about $250,000 by not paying attention to the 6 points listed here.

If forced to pick a single place to start my favorite is "Ignoring New Features and Ad Types" since a response rate is often higher for early adopters than after everyone is using a new technique. See which ones are most important to you at 
Students of Color: Enrollment Success from Start to Finish

Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul University loves to dive deep into data and he has done a masterful job to show how success in "diversity" enrollment efforts can be judged by the percent of minority students receiving an undergraduate degree.

In "Which Colleges Graduate the Most Students of Color?" you can quickly search by individual ethnicities, Carnegie status, state, and public or private status. Check your school and your competitors at 
FAQs: Improving the Visitor Experience

Just about every college and university website has one or more Frequently Asked Question sections.

Jakob Nielsen has a new Alertbox report on "An FAQ's User Experience Deconstructed" that might help improve the visitor experience at your site. Improvements noted here include the use of video, jump links to quickly scan questions and get to answers of interest, attention to new content, and links that are easily visible from the general text.

My note: pay attention and remove an FAQ when you know it is not getting frequent attention. I am always puzzled about FAQ lists that start with "When were you founded?" or "What is your mission?"

Compare your FAQ pages with advice from Nielsen at 
Social Media: Demographic and Use Research from Pew Internet

Start off 2015 with a review from Pew Research on demographics of people using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest. 

As you knew, just about everybody has a Facebook account. Everything else is under 30 percent of adults 18 or older. Gender use is comparable for each one except Pinterest, where women at 42 percent still far outnumber men at 18 percent. People with a college degree or more dominate at LinkedIn.

Those details and more are at 
Top 15 Advertising Campaigns in 2015: AdAge Selects the Best

Take a break from higher education marketing to check the ad campaigns of 2015 that AdAge has selected as the best to date.

A UNICEF campaign is in 15th spot and Dove takes first place. Details on those and 13 others are at 
Writing Right for the Web: Gerry McGovern on the "Pair Writing" Technique

Your web content will improve when two people write major content together, preferably a content specialist and a marketing person with a joint interest in top task priority.

That is the essence of a new Gerry McGovern article on "How to do pair writing well" that gives details on how to adopt this technique on your campus. 

If you like the article you can also register for a February 11 webinar at on best practices in a pair writing program based on the experience of two of our Carewords partners.
Admissions Innovation: Early Report on Goucher and Bennington Colleges

Serious deviations from standard admissions criteria seldom happen but both Goucher and Bennington have made national news in this area: Goucher for accepting 2-minute video profiles to judge and Bennington for allowing students to submit, in essence, whatever information they want without requiring high school transcripts.

A report by Inside Higher Education has both schools doing well this year, although it is too early to know whether early action and early decision application increases are due to the criteria changes. See the details on the results to date at 
Cartoon of the Month: Beware of Data Manipulators 

Do you live in a world where too many people refuse to change anything without data that proves the value of the change before it happens? Or try to use data to destroy a new idea before it is tested?

If so, laugh or weep with the Tom Fishburne "Give me a moment to find unbiased data that supports calling you and your idea stupid" cartoon at 
Most Popular Topic in January Newsletter: "What Your Website Needs in 2015"

The run-away favorite topic last month for wise people who know a website needs constant attention was this Website Magazine article at 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. 
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC

Increase your marketing success with these services. Contact me for details at 

Communication Audits
Expert Marketing Communications Website Reviews
Top Task Website Design Research with Gerry McGovern
Writing Right for the Web: Webinars, Conferences, and Campus Workshops
Competitive Website Reviews and Secret Shopping Projects
Websites gain marketing advantage with top task design

The secret to making your website an effective marketing tool: clean and simple design that lets visitors complete their tasks as quickly as possible. Experience on the site is more important than "stunning" hero images or other design fads.

For years now I've been a partner in the Customer Carewords team that promotes the use of top task research as the basis of successful website design. Carewords partners work for government agencies, private business corporations, and health care organizations as well as colleges and universities. Top task rules apply everywhere.

What are examples of effective top task use in higher education? Over my years of making Link of the Week selections I've often included top task examples. Now, prompted by a recent query from Anne Lutgerink at Internationalizing Education, I'm collecting here several of the best of those examples.

Key design elements: speed, task visibility, and "care" words

Three elements are key to top task design: Visibility in 5 seconds or less as a page opens and use of words that visitors care about. The rules don't change for mobile, except that the right words are even more important.

Examples from 9 higher education websites

University of Ottawa home page. When it went online early in 2013 this page was a thing of beauty as it gave prominent display to just four topics linking to tasks: "Find a program" and "University fees" for the primary external audience and "News, events and dates" and "Search library" for faculty and current students. Since then the page has fallen victim on occasion to someone's urge to add special events above the task links. It still remains one of the cleanest university home pages.

Victoria University home page: If you must use a carousel on your home page, don't let it drive a key top task lower on the page. In this example, "Find a course" and "Browse for courses" links take the prime upper left position and the carousel starts to the right of the task.

East Stroudsburg University admissions page: Highlighting top tasks on an admissions page is especially challenging as the tasks change as people move through the recruitment cycle. ESU meets the challenge in a simple but effective way: divide the page into 4 recruitment cycle segments and list the tasks for each segment directly to the right. Just about perfect.

Arcadia University study abroad page. The program entry page illustrates how you can use a strong image along with a branding statement and still include just 3 "can't miss" task words as the page opens. So simple. So clean. So seldom done. You can apply the same approach to just about any entry page.

Northern Alberta Institute of Technology academic program page: You won't find any photos here but you will immediately see "Grad Employment Rate" and "Median Starting Salary," two points about academic programs that are of increasing interest to potential students. Quickly following those are "Quick Facts," "Tuition & Fees" and "Entrance Requirements."

Williams College parents page: Open this page to find 6 images with word topics that you can scan easily to see the links to tasks for each topic. The first "Parent Resources" heading includes links to "Information for First-Year Students" and "Information for Returning Students" as well as a link to "Key Williams Contacts." The ability to 'find a person" is one of the most neglected top tasks on many websites.

Middlebury College department of English and American Literatures: Here is an admirable example of how to make it easy to contact your faculty. Each right-sized block for the 30 people listed includes email, phone number, and office hours. Sound simple? On many faculty website pages it isn't.

Rochester Institute of Technology Merit Scholarships: For sure this page will win no beauty awards but it offers in a single place what is so often missing from scholarship pages: name of the award, eligibility (including in some cases specific ACT & SAT scores), amount of the award, and what to do, if anything, to apply.

University of Oregon gift options page: Alumni and other potential donors want to know what their options are for giving to areas that match their special interests. Visit here to see 9 areas of interest that start with "Schools and Colleges" and end with "Athletics."

That's all for now.

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" for monthly marketing news and notes and weekly Link of the Week selections.

Join 6,775+ people and follow me on Twitter

Bob Johnson
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