College Choice: Irrational, but Not Unmeasurable?

Last week, there was a piece in Inside Higher Ed (“College Choice: It’s Anybody’s Guess”) contending that high school students’ college decisions are mostly “irrational” and “spur of the moment,” and therefore unmeasurable. Having studied the attitudes and behaviors of college-bound high school students for 25 years, I tend to agree that their decisions can be irrational. But I don’t think they are spur of the moment, and I know they can be measured in a way that can lead to more effective marketing and branding.

A colleague of mine is a classic example. She grew up in a blue-collar household in a working-class Franco-American mill city in Maine. She went to Catholic schools through eighth grade because that’s what blue-collar, Catholic families did. Since the only high school in town was the public high school, that’s where she ended up. She was an honors student in classes mainly with upper-income students from the junior high “gifted and talented” program who made it clear that they didn’t think she belonged there. So when it came time to look at colleges, she didn’t even consider elite private colleges—or any private colleges for that matter—because she didn’t think she would feel welcome there, either. And no one ever tried to convince her otherwise. Irrational? Probably. Spur of the moment? No. Every twist and turn and experience in her life up to the moment she signed her acceptance letter influenced her final decision to attend a regional public university.

Last week’s IHE article concluded that the “factors at the forefront of the mind of the college-choosing teenager will continue to remain impenetrable to even the most sophisticated empirical analyses.” I wholeheartedly disagree that research is useless. Marketing research is, in fact, the only way to bring some clarity to the process. Complete clarity? Of course not. But market research is essential to the development of an effective marketing and branding program precisely because the college choice process is so difficult to measure.

Comfort and fit are certainly tough to quantify. But higher ed marketers and branders have to seek to understand it. Think about the many consumer behaviors we exhibit on a daily basis that seem irrational—do I buy Crest because it makes my teeth cleaner than Colgate? No, I buy it because that’s what my mom bought. My 46-year-old self recently purchased a pair of Vans, for goodness’ sake. (I’m sure the skater kid working there was laughing…on the inside, thank goodness.) But you certainly don’t believe that Procter & Gamble and Vans are sitting back saying, “Those choices are so irrational, we’re not even going to bother to do any market research.” It’s quite the opposite.

Good marketing and branding is, at its essence, good rhetoric—communication that finds the common ground between what you want to say about your institution and what your audience wants to know about it. Research helps us understand prospects’ desires and needs—including what appeals to them emotionally—so that we can find points of common ground and communicate with them effectively.

What I know to be true: We are drawn to products, causes, candidates, and experiences that match our own personal brand—brands that align with what we believe and the way we think about ourselves. Brands have personalities. (Well, the good ones do.) And when a brand’s personality matches my view of myself and who I want to be, it has a better chance of reaching me. In my colleague’s case, a mill-city girl at heart felt most at home at a state institution that proudly serves its nearby working-class communities. So, yes, consumer behavior is often irrational. College choice is certainly irrational. Research can’t make a science out of that irrationality. But our marketing and branding efforts, if driven by research and great brand thinking, will be better and more effective than if we just wing it.

FERPA: How It Does (and Doesn’t) Affect Higher-Ed Research Studies

A recent study by Pew Research Center found that 64% of Americans have personally experienced a major data breach and 49% feel their personal information is less secure than it was five years ago. It’s not surprising, then, that here at SimpsonScarborough, we’ve noticed an uptick in the number of questions we receive from clients about data security and regulations that affect what data they can share with our firm for the purposes of the research projects we conduct on their behalf. Since we’re finding ourselves answering these questions more frequently, we thought it might help to do a short primer on FERPA and the precautions we take to make sure we (and our clients) are fully compliant.

First of all, what is FERPA?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.

FERPA serves an important role in protecting the privacy of student records. How does it apply to the work we do at SimpsonScarborough? You can read all about FERPA here, but here’s the section that’s most relevant to our work (emphasis ours):


Generally, schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student’s education record. However, FERPA allows schools to disclose those records, without consent, to the following parties or under the following conditions:School officials with legitimate educational interest;

  1. Other schools to which a student is transferring;
  2. Specified officials for audit or evaluation purposes;
  3. Appropriate parties in connection with financial aid to a student;
  4. Organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of the school

Schools may disclose, without consent, ‘directory’ information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance.


FERPA does allow schools to disclose records, without consent, to organizations conducting studies on behalf of the school – that’s us! When we partner with a college or university to do marketing, branding, or creative work, many times that work includes some type of qualitative or quantitative research conducted with students, faculty, staff, and alumni. In order to reach these audiences, we request directory information from our client schools to be used to invite their audiences to participate in our research. The data we request also includes some additional information (for example, year of graduation, degree type, major, etc.) that allows us to look at survey responses based on key demographic information.

All the data our client institutions share with us falls under the umbrella of “directory information.” This is not considered highly sensitive information. We don’t get—or ask for—passwords or social security numbers, and we don’t know if Joe Schmoe failed calculus or was referred for an honors violation. What’s more, all the data we collect is shared via a secure, firewall-protected cloud server, and our staff follows strict security measures when handling the data. The data is only used for the purposes of collecting and analyzing survey data to help the institution with its marketing, branding, and creative efforts.

Data security is always at the top of our minds here at SimpsonScarborough, and we take every precaution to keep our clients’ data and their stakeholders’ directory information secure, regardless of whether it is deemed “sensitive.” Rest assured, if you are working with us and giving us access to directory information for your students, you are in compliance with FERPA regulations.

One last thing: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the second question we get after the FERPA one: “Is this survey going to have a negative impact on our recruitment cycle?” It’s a fair concern. While we don’t have a research study to prove any connection or lack thereof, we do know that in a decade of conducting 50-odd research studies a year, we’ve never had a client report any negative fallout. And anecdotally, we have actually had clients tell us that the surveys seem to increase prospects’ knowledge of and interest in their institutions.

Higher Ed Social Media Engagement: It Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

“We need more engagement!”

“Why do our competitor’s posts do so much better than ours?”

“We need to make this go viral!”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. The quest to become a social media super-hero can feel like a frustrating journey where you’re wading through an ever-changing quagmire of platforms, algorithms, and experimentation. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I recently spoke on this topic at the CASE Social Media & Community Conference in Los Angeles, along with John Clark, CEO of Rival IQ. (Here’s the post I wrote to recap some of the key takeaways from the conference.) What are some simple ways you can boost audience engagement in higher education social media? Here are a few of the themes we talked through in our presentation, including some tactics you can experiment with right away.

Showcase the seasons

What’s one of the first topics you turn to for “small talk?” The weather. As it turns out, this go-to theme is almost unfailingly engaging on social media—even more so than at your typical cocktail party. We found that posts celebrating simple things like the beautiful leaves of fall, that “first day of spring” feeling, and snow days are huge hits on social media. Get out of the office and show off that campus as it changes during the year. (And if you’re lucky enough to be in Southern California, I wouldn’t hold it against you if you posted a “wish you were here!” sun-and-palm-trees shot in the middle of a Midwestern snowstorm.)

Celebrate community

Another consistent theme in highly engaging posts is a focus on achievements, traditions, and special experiences. Talk about what makes your school unique. When students and faculty achieve something–big or small–highlight it! Did a popular shop or restaurant in your college town just win a contest or award? Sing its praises. And if at all possible, have an alum win an Oscar. (That last one is a little tongue-in-cheek, but you get the idea.)

Small changes can lead to big improvements

If you can’t hire five more people or add 50% to your budget right now, that’s okay! You don’t have to. We’ve seen small changes make a big difference. For instance, research shows that using images with tweets and embedding videos directly instead of using YouTube links drives up social media engagement. And remembering that the content we create is for our audiences, not for us, can lead to small daily successes that add up in a big way over time. Either way, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to see significant improvements in social media engagement metrics.

In the fast-paced world of higher ed social media, it’s always good to have a few extra tools in your back pocket to grow and engage your audience. We’d love to hear your success stories! Drop me a line and share fun and effective ways you’re connecting with your social media community.

Jeremiah Barba is the Digital Marketing Manager at Up&Up, a higher ed marketing agency in Greenville, South Carolina.

2017 Call for AMA Papers

Have innovative and effective higher ed marketing strategies to share with your peers? Then submit a proposal to present at the 2017 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, scheduled for November 12-15 in Atlanta.

The Symposium is the largest professional development opportunity for higher ed marketers. It features four days of lecture sessions divided into tracks including brand strategy, digital strategy, marketing insights, leading operations and organizations, and engaging audiences.

Benefits for presenters extend far beyond complimentary conference registration. Raise your institution’s visibility, contribute to the field of higher education, enhance your professional reputation, and expand your network. Want to learn more? Download the call for proposals for complete submission guidelines and suggested topics. Proposals are due April 14.

New and Next in Defining Higher Ed Brands

Sunshine, golf courses, mid-century homes, and furniture and streets named for luminaries of yesteryear like Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Gerald Ford, and Frank Sinatra (names that the near Gen Z’er in my house had never heard). Perhaps there’s no better place to talk about what’s “New and Next” in higher education marketing than Palm Springs? Our friends at Converge Consulting recently hosted their terrific biennial event that brings together big speakers and big ideas. We thank them for the chance to speak and, more importantly, to soak in knowledge from the sessions.

Along with detailed presentations on content strategy, effective search marketing, digital advertising, and inbound ideas galore, an interesting discussion emerged on the role of brand in the modern higher ed landscape. Should you spend money and vital institutional energy on branding efforts at a time when so many colleges and universities are fighting to build enrollments in programs or degrees, and when the profile of the prospective students is shifting so dramatically away from traditional 18-year-old undergraduates to a much more varied audience of nontraditional, working, part-time students?

It’s a complicated but completely reasonable question. And smart, experienced professionals and practitioners will offer differing perspectives on the right way to go. My assertion is that it’s not an either/or choice.

At SimpsonScarborough, we believe that brand strategy is linked by three key elements:

  1. Fundamentals: what the institution stands for, who it serves, its values, and its reputation
  2. Function: what are the points of excellence and distinction that the institution delivers better—not necessarily differently—than its key competitors
  3. Fit: how do people experience, feel, or intuit the institution, and how does the support and service they receive match their needs

Most higher ed marketing work we see today focuses primarily on the fundamentals and fit of the institution. It highlights rankings, reputation, and notable individuals’ stories. It captures the innate feelings of pride and passion that those closest to the university feel. It’s moved from the “three and a tree” shot of diverse students to the now ubiquitous drone footage with music and fast-paced editing and clever, engaging social media strategies. But it’s leaving a big part out.

Where institutions aren’t as successful is in identifying the “functions” that distinguish their brands. What’s that mean specifically? Don’t forget your products as an integral part of your brand marketing. While it’s easy for a luxury auto brand to not focus on functional product benefits like a back-up camera or 4-wheel drive, a university brand must ensure that your audience quickly understands the majors, courses, certificate programs, etc., that you offer to meet their needs and interests. That’s your product.

Then, more importantly, what are your product distinctions? Is it simply cost? Are you offering a program or curriculum that your competitors don’t have? Do your courses meet specific needs of the job market in your region? Are people hungry to major in those areas? Are you naming those programs and courses correctly? And are these distinctive offerings associated with your institution by prospective students and influencers?

For many higher ed marketers, this is often a sore spot, as we don’t get much input into the development of the “product.” But the reality is that marketers do have control over the stories and narratives that put a spotlight on these areas. Choosing to focus only on brand “fundamentals” in your strategy may leave your institution feeling like everyone else—even if you’re doing it with a better creative veneer.

And, then, what is the fit or experience when a student starts taking those classes? Basically, what’s under the hood? For example, if I’m a working professional, knowing that your institution’s courses are taught at times that are convenient for my family life and job schedule is a key consideration. Perhaps it’s knowing that instructors are actual practitioners in those fields that’s important. Maybe it’s as simple as making it really easy to register or just having web pages load quickly on mobile.

A contemporary higher ed brand should strike the right balance in bringing together these three elements. The right mix and emphasis will depend on your institutional goals and marketing objectives. But don’t sell your marketing strategy short by focusing on fundamentals over fit. Or brand over product.