There’s no shortage of sobering news about the future of higher education. Changing demographics, declining family income, and reduced federal and state funding combine to create a bleak picture. In this environment, it’s increasingly difficult to grow, or even maintain, enrollment, while also maintaining revenue, increasing quality, or increasing diversity.

How can institutions meet their enrollment goals in a challenging market?

One answer is by better leveraging their brands. An institution with a strong brand has the power to attract more right-fit students, create a strong value proposition, and stand out from competitors. All of which translates to enrollment and revenue.

The good news is that, unless your institution just opened it’s doors yesterday, you already have a brand. The key is to understand it, improve it, and effectively leverage it to prospective students and their parents.

How do you harness the power of your brand to reach the prospective student audience?

1. Sharpen your brand language.

When was the last time you refined your brand language? Unless you’ve done brand strategy work recently, there may be an opportunity to revisit and refine your brand positioning. Your positioning should be aspirational, yet grounded in reality. It should feel like a better version of what you are.

To make sure your brand is working as hard as it can with prospective students and the people who influence their college decision process, conduct focus groups or phone interviews with prospective students, prospective parents, and guidance counselors. Ask them what they see as your strengths and weaknesses, and what associations they have. If that feedback doesn’t match your brand, you may have an opportunity to refine your brand language.

2. Don’t try to be all things to all people.

Strong brands make sacrifices about what they won’t be, in addition to deciding what they will be. This can be scary for higher ed institutions used to an “everything for everybody” approach. But being upfront about what you are and what you aren’t allows the right students to find you, and weeds out the wrong students earlier. Said another way, students who want something different from what you have will figure it out eventually anyway. Might as well tell them upfront and avoid wasting everyone’s time.

3. Create simple messages that tell your unique story.

Organizations like to use big words, long sentences, and corporate speak, and they often end up with communications that sound like this:

“We empower people to transform their personal entertainment resources.” – No one. Ever.

Instead of:

“We help people enjoy their music on the go.”

Look at the language you’re using to describe your brand. Is it simple? Does it use short words? Short sentences? If not, you’re not helping prospective students figure out who you are and what you offer. You’re making people work too hard.

4. Focus on benefits, not attributes.

Too much higher ed communication focuses on features instead of benefits. “We have 175 tenured faculty members.” “Our campus sits on 70 acres of land.”

Good brand messaging tells the audience what they will get from an education at your school. A great job. Entrance into top graduate schools. A rich, rewarding life. These are the benefits they’re looking for.

It’s not that the features aren’t important. They tell people how and why you deliver on the benefits. But lead with the benefits and fill in the detail with the features.

5. Shift the focus from “we” to “you.”

“We prepare graduates to get great jobs” is not as compelling as “You will be exceptionally prepared to get a great job with a degree from our school.” Think about your audience — what they want, what their fears are — and tell them what you’ll do for them. In other words, tell them what’s in it for them.


Higher education branding doesn’t have to be difficult. By understanding the unique dynamics — and the potential pitfalls that can arise – you can create a process that ensures that you get buy-in for a compelling brand positioning that will capture the unique story of your institution.

Want to learn more? We recently published a white paper that explores the specific challenges of higher education branding and gives you strategies for clearing the most common hurdles.

mStoner Staff

AUTHOR - mStoner Staff

mStoner, Inc. helps clients to tell their authentic stories by clarifying their unique brand value proposition, creating a content strategy to communicate the brand effectively, and implementing compelling and dynamic communications across the web, mobile, social media, print, and other channels. We focus on research, data, and results.

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