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Technology Strikes

Schools were always believed to be beyond the effect of recessions, and colleges flourished in the past decade, increasing enrollment of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. by 4% from 2000 to 2008. But both public and private schools have begun to flinch. “Education used to be recession-proof, at least until the last economic downtown,” says Fritz McDonald, vice president of creative strategy for Stamats Inc., a leading higher-education marketing firm. “But in this particular recession, endowments took a huge hit, and obviously state budgets have taken a huge hit, and those two events are having a huge impact on the college and university world.”

One study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (an association of private colleges) "predicts that by 2025, half of all the private colleges or universities in this country are going to have to close, merge or change their missions if they're going to survive,” says Mike Connor, president of Connor Associates Strategic Services, a school marketing and planning consultancy. “That's a pretty sobering fact because we're only 15 years out from that."

As a result, schools must visibly change the ways they market themselves. McDonald points out that colleges have become conservative with their marketing plans, yet they’re adopting social media at a faster rate than Fortune 500 companies. “They’ve been in the old recruiting model for a long time, and what they’re going through is a kind of sea change because of digital technology,” he says. “They’re confronting the fact that, for example, the Web is becoming the hub of their marketing and recruiting.”

Yet, it’s still proven that promotional products have a lower cost-per-impression than even prime-time television, with just 0.5 cents per impression as compared to TV’s 1.8 cents. When social media is paired with promotional products as a marketing strategy, several audiences can be conquered at once.

Connor sees value as becoming even more important for schools to justify, starting with what he terms “internal marketing” (word of mouth among a school’s current students and parents) and coinciding with regarding the entire school as a marketing organization. “They just can't claim it,” he says about schools’ demonstrating their value. “They can't just say, 'We're the best.' They got to be able to prove it."

The task for schools is going to be incredibly difficult as they grapple with what exactly constitutes a 21st-century curriculum. The standard brick-and-mortar school is no longer the only game in town. Home schooling is increasing by 15% per year. Charter schools now enroll over 1.5 million students in more than 5,000 schools. Independent study, online education, specialty schools and more all threaten the current order of education. “Education is going to be available anywhere, and from a variety of different sources,” proclaims Connor.