At universities across the country, admissions offices and athletic departments face a big challenge. Shrinking government support for higher education has put the squeeze on academic programs and sports programs alike.
Following the Great Recession that began in 2008, states slashed higher education funding by billions of dollars. As of 2017, funding levels were still below 2008 levels, with the average state spending $1,448 less per student – a 16 percent reduction, adjusted for inflation.
In response, many universities raised tuition and refocused their spending to protect academic programs and educational priorities. This often came at the expense of athletics and other departments that could previously rely on stronger support. Those departments increasingly have to stand on their own. Many sports programs have responded by raising ticket prices to daunting levels.
As a result, some students and sports fans are doing something that seemed unthinkable not that long ago. They’re opting out. We’re finally hitting the ceiling – many people are no longer willing to pay whatever it costs to get in to the big game or to attend a top-ranked college or university.
Imagine a talented student who chooses a local, in-state school over her first choice, which happened to be an out of state institution that would cost $200,000 more over four years. Or imagine a group of former college roommates who dump their season tickets to their alma mater’s top 20 football program and instead get together to watch games on their 100-inch TVs in their comfortable man caves, where beer and food cost a fraction of what they paid at the stadium.
The competition is fierce
Athletic departments are also dealing with the explosion of sports entertainment options. Fans have many new ways to spend their entertainment budget. Some top college football programs actually struggle to sell out home games in their cavernous stadiums. For schools that have historically used elite sports to drive alumni donations or to attract incoming students, this presents a problem. There’s more competition than ever.
Many schools have responded with aggressive recruiting campaigns. The mailboxes of high school students have been filled with an endless stream of brochures. Most of those mailers are untargeted – a bulk mail blizzard that relies on quantity over quality.
An optimal approach would focus on students that are more receptive to a school’s message and a better fit on its campus. Taking the time to understand students’ needs better and to provide better service could make the difference in the battle for new admissions.
Building better connections
The same approach works with alumni, donors, and sports fans. It starts with uncovering and analyzing the right information, which helps improve efficiency and focus, and then builds better connections with students, their families, and sports fans.
That information comes in the form of three kinds of data. First, actions and behaviors. For example, a fan attends a game, buys merchandise, or responds to a marketing email, which suggests potential affiliations and interests. Second, appended information, such as net worth, or other demographics. Is the ticket holder a student or an alumnus? This information can often be gleaned, or estimated, from information like a zip code collected during an online ticket order. And third, data that customers volunteer, which could come from a follow-up email, asking the fan to rate her gameday experience or provide her age.
At SSB, we bring all three sources of information together in a structured platform where it can be measured and tracked by people across the university. This enables better connections and better service to customers – also known as students, alumni, and/or sports fans. That data helps recognize the changing needs of constituents, solve their problems, and inject more accountability into university operations while providing a comprehensive view of the health of the organization and its KPIs.
Ultimately, it means spending less money on marketing, sales, and fundraising efforts, while producing better results.
Doing more with less
Many universities have historically been insulated from pressure to evolve or to drive financial success. They could just raise tuition whenever necessary, and, in fact, the cost of a degree has risen faster than general inflation for decades. But today, reduced government support and sky-high tuition have left more students doubting the value of a college degree from their top choice. University administrators are under enormous pressure to do more with less.
In coming weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at the higher education landscape, examining the causes of the current financial gap, and suggesting solutions for injecting more business accountability into the industry.
Technology and data can play a big role in boosting admissions, athletic revenues, and alumni support in a challenging financial environment. And there’s no excuse for waiting. The market has shifted amid external forces that universities can no longer control. Institutions that embrace technology will attract more students, sports fans, and financial donations than those that lag behind.