University chief marketing officers’ perceptions of marketing strategies to address the predicted enrollment cliff of 2025-2037

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Higher education colleges and universities have relied on enrollment to support the university fiscally. As revenues from other sources have declined, colleges and universities have increased pressure on admissions and marketing teams to recruit more students to generate revenue. The next decade will bring a significant enrollment drop for many institutions because of several factors including birthrate declines and demographic shifts. The projected enrollment decline has been called the enrollment cliff due to the impact on colleges and universities who will face a major revenue loss if enrollments decline as predicted. This study explored chief marketing officers’ perceptions of their role in marketing the institution, what challenges and opportunities they perceived that marketing departments could address, and their recommendations for how colleges and universities could leverage marketing efforts to overcome the impending enrollment cliff. This qualitative study utilized a collective case study research design. The study setting was 15 randomly selected regional public universities in the Southeast U.S., and participants included a purposeful sample of chief marketing officers employed at study institutions. Study data included individual interviews with chief marketing officers, document analysis of supporting documents, field notes of interview settings, and the researcher’s reflexive journal. Data was analyzed utilizing an inductive reasoning method, and open coding and axial coding were employed. Specific trustworthiness strategies were utilized to ensure the study’s credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. The results of the study indicate that chief marketing officers perceive that the roles of the marketing office have changed in recent years and now include more day-to-day marketing tasks including aiding in recruitment, advancing the brand, and developing marketing strategies and content. The findings also highlight the role the university president plays in ensuring marketing is represented at the executive level, the importance of embracing differentiation in marketing efforts, and the benefit of employing data to make better marketing decisions. Other results from the study included a number of challenges that universities must overcome in advance of the enrollment cliff and opportunities that exist for using marketing to mitigate enrollment declines. Finally, a number of implications and recommendations were provided to assist chief marketing officers and university leadership in their efforts to utilize marketing to overcome the impending enrollment cliff.

Marketing, Enrollment Cliff, Higher Education