We are at a time of big transition for the higher ed industry. There are several trends that are contributing to both positive and negative perceptions of higher learning. Here are a few ideas about how to utilize digital platforms + tools to overcome new challenges and capitalize on trends.

1. Cost + Value Questions

Because of the shaky economy, people are much more conscious about how much they’re spending on higher learning. Whether it’s a part-time student earning her master’s degree, or a high school student’s parents exploring what institutions are affordable for their child. There is a question among parents and students alike about the value of a college degree, since many graduates are not in a high-earning position at work.

In order to overcome this challenge, educational institutions must look at their school as a business. Communicating the return on investment to parents and students is imperative to drawing in numbers. Supply data in your recruitment documents and website that show how many of your alumni were recruited by large corporations, or went on to successful careers. If the institution does not have great data available regarding this, communicating the value of various programs could be another way to prove positive ROI. For example, instead of just saying “Our writing program is stellar because of x,y, and z,” documents can reflect the various career fields that your students who graduated from the writing program have gone into: “Graduates of the writing program have gone into career fields including but not limited to teaching, law, government and real estate.”

2. Social Media as Research Tool

Now more than ever, students and parents are researching institutions online, and it goes beyond a Google search. They want information about students’ experiences there and to get information about the vast opportunities the institutions provide. Use social media to connect current students (your biggest asset on these channels) to prospective students. Encourage conversation on your social media platforms. Create platforms that engage both prospective students and alumni.

Some ways to do this: publish photos from educational and social events throughout the year, post about unique traditions + other differentiators (how they came about, who started them, who is responsible for carrying them on now), have alumni submit their favorite memories and publish them across social channels, create a YouTube channel and publish video tours of the facilities, dorms and interviews with current students. Utilize your social channels to champion your sports teams, clubs and students’ extracurriculars that provide added value to student life.

3. MOOC, Alternative Learning Channels

The MOOC trend (Massive Open Online Course) is nothing new and many institutions are now embracing the trend (rather than trying to fight it). And there is no better way to offer value than to give some of your knowledge away for free. Being a resource for students who want to learn is a great way to develop a positive online reputation.

Offering alternative learning sources outside of the four walls of your school’s buildings can positively impact your site’s authority, increase brand awareness and build the prospective donor and student base. Offering online tools and resources is not giving away too much for free. In fact, if users find your resources helpful, they are more likely to share their experiences online, return to your site and perhaps eventually enroll or donate. Applying the trend we’ve seen with “freemium” business models to education is a smart way to drive change in your organization.

4. Appealing to Non-Traditional Students

The current public perception is that everyone has the right to do what makes them happy. And why shouldn’t that be the attitude? We can have it all. This attitude has contributed to an increase of non-traditional age students. These are people going back to school after having an established career who are wishing to switch gears completely or just continue their education to put them in a better spot for promotion. Educational marketers need to be aware of this trend and cater programs that speak to these individuals. Schools need to find out where this target audience is online: Are they on LinkedIn? Are they listening to Pandora at work? Are they searching for new career opportunities on Google or a job search site? All of these channels hold potential opportunities to reach those folks who wish to start a new chapter.

5. Digital Fundraising Efforts

It is no secret that digital marketing has the ability to be tracked on a granular level and provide you with a hard return on investment. A fact that may have alluded you, however, is that digital is a great tool for fundraising. Email marketing campaigns are an effective way to stay in contact with your donors and remind them about upcoming giving opportunities. Social channels are a great way to provide transparency to donors (“here’s a picture of the new library you’re helping us build!”). There is plenty of opportunity to track engagement on digital channels, which allows you to test and refine your messaging and fundraising tactics.