October 26, 2022

Marketing Higher Education During the Pandemic

Student with books walking on campus

The pandemic impacted institutions of higher learning in a uniquely challenging way.  

While many colleges and universities already lived in the virtual space through online learning, the pandemic still impacted in-person learning and campus life in a dramatic fashion.

According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, more than one million fewer students are enrolled in college now than before the pandemic began. This historic decline means colleges and universities need to invest in their brand messaging and strategic marketing efforts now more than ever.

Push10 reached out to educational institutions across the country to gather insights from in-house marketers at colleges and universities. We wanted to know how they and their teams were connecting with audiences in a post-pandemic landscape.


Whaton Baker Retail custom photography for website


At Charleston Southern University, the need to communicate with students and other audiences at the start of the pandemic was very important. Executive Director of Marketing & Communication Jenna Johnson served as a member of the university’s pandemic task force and implemented a weekly email update from the campus president.

When opportunities to help the community at large were not always available, the focus turned inward toward caring for people on their own campus. For example, they established an emergency fund for students who needed help with unexpected expenses, like medical bills.

“We have a servant-minded campus with servant hearts and servant leaders,” Johnson said. “Our students and faculty stepped up in a big way.”

As the world gradually returns to a new normal, Johnson observed the incoming classes of students seeking a community more than ever before. Many students had missed out on the traditional high school experience – formal dances, graduation ceremonies, and other social gatherings – due to COVID. 

“Over the last year, as things started opening up more, we had an exponential increase in the amount of students who would come to events,” she said. “They wanted to be a part of something and enjoy campus life.”


Tactics to Boost Enrollment

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, rates of enrollment immediately after high school dropped 6.8 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year. 

Spartanburg Community College in South Carolina utilized federal COVID-19 relief funds to launch a program in May 2021 offering free tuition to prospective students living or working full time in South Carolina and taking classes that add up to at least six credits. Their marketing strategies emphasized the flexible options with online learning, so prospective students who worked full-time could still see themselves at SCC.

The response was huge. The college experienced a 32 percent increase in enrollment in 2021 and a 50 percent increase over 2020 numbers, earning them media coverage from local and national outlets.

“Free tuition has been a resounding success,” said Colton Grace, director of strategic communications. “We decided to invest in our students. We are in our second year of that, and we’ve had tremendous growth.”


Reaching college students with effective marketing


Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island executed digital campaigns in response to the pandemic, earning recognition at the 9th Annual Education Digital Marketing Awards. Director of Integrated Marketing Strategy and Brand Deployment, Lindsey Turowski said their digital marketing efforts have shifted to reach students on channels like Snapchat and TikTok. They were prepared ahead of the pandemic, having already invested in their digital toolbox to reach prospective students.

“We were fortunate that we already had virtual offerings on our site, like a virtual campus map and 360-degree tour,” Turowski said. “We repositioned some of our digital marketing efforts to bolster those creative materials that were already out there. The enrollment management area also hosting an online virtual open house with smaller groups that was really successful.”

Their mercy-driven, compassionate messaging served them well, and Salve Regina’s enrollment held strong and meet goals during the pandemic.


Trying Something New

Some colleges took a risk during the pandemic, shifting advertising dollars into new avenues. 

For Lindsay Nyquist, director of marketing and communications at Fort Lewis College, the risk paid off when they signed on to be featured in episode one of The College Tour. Hosted by Amazing Race alum Alex Boylan and available on Amazon Prime and Roku, the show featured 10 Fort Lewis College students who shared their experiences with FLC’s academics, diversity, athletics, career preparation, and more

“It was a leap of faith on our part,” Nyquist said. “We were able to give people a better sense of who we are and showcase our ‘campus in sky.’ It was a really positive experience.”

Although the marketing landscape has changed for colleges and universities, those who adopted new approaches and weren’t afraid to take risks have seen their efforts rewarded.



If you have insights to share on this topic or would like to work with Push10 to bolster your brand identity in a post-pandemic world, please reach out to Lisa@push10.com.