It’s not an exaggeration to say that 2020 presented a lot of challenges across almost all industries. But one that was particularly hit hard was the higher education industry.

Between trying to figure out the best way to keep students and faculty safe, coordinating online learning, and looking for innovative solutions to keep students invested and interested in higher learning – it’s no wonder that many higher education marketing experts were feeling more than burned out at the end of 2020.

And while we’ll likely be feeling the impact of 2020’s changes and challenges well into 2021, there are some emerging or lasting trends that we can incorporate into our 2021 higher education marketing strategies to ensure a successful year.

Use these 2021 education marketing trends to create a college marketing strategy.

Here are the top 2021 higher education marketing trends you need to know, plus 12 actionable strategies to help you respond effectively to these trends this year.


1. Many students deferred or plan to defer higher education (for now).

With more students planning to defer higher education through 2021, you may be fighting against lower enrollment numbers, which is an ever-present challenge for higher ed marketers.

One survey found that more than one-third of high school seniors would prefer to defer enrollment than enroll at a university offering online-only learning. And, 10% of high school seniors who were planning to attend a four-year college have made alternative plans including community college, online learning, or a gap year.

So, how can you balance the safety restrictions imposed by COVID-19 while appealing to students who are looking for a more traditional higher education experience?

Here are some strategies to try: 

Highlight ways your university is keeping students connected.

College is as much about experiences as it is about education. Show prospective students how your campus is keeping people connected, fostering new relationships, and continuing to offer an experience they can be excited about – while following COVID-19 safety protocols.

Highlight how you're keeping students connected and informed throughout covid-19 in your 2021 higher education marketing.

Let students know why higher education is still so important.

The reality of the pandemic and the current economic climate means that finding and keeping full-time jobs is more difficult than in previous years.

Use data and real-world examples to educate prospective students on the need for higher education now more than ever. (For example, college grads earn 80% more than non-college grads.)

Don’t skimp on the fun.

The world is pretty dark and heavy right now. Many high school seniors missed out on milestones they had likely been looking forward to for years – final sports games, proms, and time with their hometown friends. Show them that your university is fun and that they can make new, exciting memories on your campus.


2. More students are attending school virtually.

In 2021, many colleges and universities plan to offer online learning only or a hybrid of online and in-person learning. This presents its own set of challenges when it comes to keeping students engaged and attracting new students.

But, there are some higher education marketing strategies you can use in 2021 to continue reaching current and new students.

Here are some higher education marketing strategies to try in 2021:

Offer incentives for online learning.

Talk about how your school understands that not everyone has the same available resources and ideal environment to be able to study and any alternative options you have available. If you’re able, provide promotions or special offers for students learning virtually. Maybe you partner with a technology provider to give them a discount on a new laptop or tablet, or maybe you provide some sort of stipend for internet access.

Online learning will continue to be a 2021 education marketing trend so share how you're adjusting to that.

Whatever you can do to set your learning experience apart from the rest and get students to enroll in your virtual classes can help set you up for success through 2021.

Highlight your technology.

Technology can make or break the student experience in 2021, especially for those learning virtually. Tout the technology you have or are testing to make the experience stand out from other online courses.

Share a “Day in the Life” of a current student.

Students are having trouble visualizing what the school experience and don’t know what to expect. Your current students are your best advocates. Highlight how learning online has worked for them, what they like, and what they’re excited about when it comes to online learning. 


3. There’s more of an emphasis on social issues.

In 2020, social issues around Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis, as well as the election, garnered a lot of attention, and younger people were at the forefront of them – attending and leading rallies, getting actively involved in phone banking, and raising awareness for climate control initiatives.

Gen Z is politically active and engaged in social issues, and they want their universities to foster that.

Most colleges and universities have student groups on campus dedicated to certain causes, so it’s just a matter of finding and amplifying them and their voices in your marketing to appeal to new and returning students.

Here are some higher education marketing strategies to try this year:

Get the word out about the causes you support.

There are likely different causes that your university supports and is involved in – you can highlight these to appeal to students and prospective students who are politically or socially engaged.

Social issues are a big 2021 education marketing trend you need to address in your marketing.

Target different groups on social media.

Make sure that your education social media strategy is highlighting diverse voices and the groups that serve them.

For example, one in four high school juniors and seniors are Latinx. There is a 13% projected growth for Hispanics and 6% growth for African Americans for all post-secondary degree-granting institutions.

Share user-generated content from your students and their groups to your page to give prospective students an idea of who your current students are and what they care about.

Invite leaders to guest blog or do a social media takeover.

Talk to different on-campus groups or faculty advisors and ask them to contribute to your university blog (if you have one). If you don’t have a blog, they can contribute short videos or quotes for your social media pages. Ask them to share about their personal experiences, causes they care about, and how the university supports them.


4. There’s a need for classes to address the evolving employment landscape.

The realities of the economic crisis spurred on by the pandemic have left many current students feeling a lack of preparedness at entering the “real world.” Many students who may have been studying for degrees in fields that were left decimated by layoffs and furloughs are rethinking their degree programs and considering options that may have more job security in the future.

In fact, this trend isn’t really even new. The marketing classes I took in college less than 15 years ago didn’t address social media, blogs, or really any aspects of digital marketing – one project revolved around successfully pitching and selling a printer!

Higher education has long been trying to keep up with the changing and evolving employment landscape.

Job placement is a key consideration for students when choosing which school to attend. Higher education marketing experts have an opportunity to highlight degree programs and areas of study that are in emerging fields or for newly-created positions, such as health and safety monitors that have been hired by major studios, movie theaters, and even corporate offices – all dedicated to keeping employees safe from the virus.

While these positions may fall by the wayside as the pandemic subsides, if your university offers certifications or courses that could give students experience in this area, you can help set your school apart from others students may be considering.

Try these strategies in 2021 for your higher education marketing:

Profile new degree programs or certifications.

Is your university offering new programs or certifications that may be of interest to prospective students? Highlight those in your marketing materials to show that you’re staying relevant and ahead of the curve. Specify if your programs and certifications are skills on-demand for the workforce and specify when programs have an opportunity for faster certification.

A big 2021 education marketing trend is to adapt to the current landscape and economic climate with degree programs and certifications.

Share relevant content from your experts.

Your higher education organization is filled with experts in their respective fields. Make sure you’re sharing content from them – especially if they’re profiled or quoted in outside media. You want prospective students to know that they’re getting an education from experts who are respected and successful.

Create case studies from recent grads.

Right now, there’s so much uncertainty in the economy that current students and prospective students are worried about getting a job. By creating case studies from recent grads about their degree program, how your university helped them secure a job, and how they’re succeeding now, you can put some of those fears to rest and win over new students.


Higher Education Marketing in 2021

Higher education marketing is going to continue to be a challenge in 2021, but with the right data and strategies, you can successfully retain current students and increase enrollment. Learn more about how we can help with higher education marketing here.