Mission vs. Marketing

Chicago—Enrollment management is one of the few areas in a college where the tensions between market and mission are directly confronted. That’s the case David H. Kalsbeek made at the first “Balancing Market and Mission Symposium,” held by DePaul University’s Center for Access and Attainment two years ago.

The market pressures facing colleges have only grown more intense since that meeting. Family incomes have dropped, widespread demographic change is under way, and federal and state funds for higher education are in doubt. As the second symposium opened here on Wednesday, Mr. Kalsbeek, senior vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul, referred to 2009 as “the good old days.”

Like the first symposium, this follow-up brought together enrollment, marketing, and mission officials from a group of Roman Catholic colleges.  DePaul kept the meeting small by design, but 22 colleges were represented this year, a larger group than the first time around.

The conference, held Wednesday through Friday, was designed to explore whether Catholic higher education’s mission is borne out in its enrollment, and to provide an opportunity for enrollment managers and mission officers to talk to each other. This time,  additional attention was paid to how Catholic colleges market themselves, which can be a point of tension between these groups.

Mission officers often complain that their college’s viewbook looks like it could just as easily belong to a public or a Protestant college, Mr. Kalsbeek said. What they forget, he said, is that a viewbook is not a mission statement.

Students do not usually make their college choice with religion at the front of their minds, said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Catholic colleges know they serve students from many faith backgrounds, he said, so they are often shy about putting their Catholic identity first and foremost.

At the same time, Mr. Galligan-Stierle said, research shows that this generation of students expects to grow spiritually during college, and it would be a mistake for Catholic colleges to miss the chance to speak to that desire in their recruitment process.

Marketing officials from two colleges shared how they handle Catholic identity in their branding in a presentation on Friday. Marquette University looked into what prospective students and alumni, among others, saw as positive and negative attributes of the university during a recent research project.

Prospective students were split between seeing Marquette’s Jesuit and Catholic identity as a positive or a negative thing, said Tricia Geraghty, the university’s vice president for marketing and communication. Alumni, in contrast, were inclined to list Jesuit as a positive attribute.

Prospective students might not all see a Jesuit university as desirable, Ms. Geraghty said, but the research showed that they were interested in a well-rounded education, values and ethics, and social justice: all things that Marquette sees as a part of its Jesuit identity. “This is a dilemma for us,” she said.

One thing Marquette has done in response to that dilemma is create an ad for Jesuit education in general, which it has made available to the other Jesuit colleges, Ms. Geraghty said.

DePaul also studied how various groups view it, and neither its Catholic nor its Vincentian identity made the top 10, said Deborah Maue, associate vice president for marketing strategy. The university debated explaining what its Vincentian identity meant as part of its branding, she said, but decided that this would be too big a challenge.

For most organizations, a brand is the external representation of the mission, said Ms. Maue, whose background is in corporate marketing. DePaul defines its mission as Catholic, urban, and Vincentian, she said, but that doesn’t mean those are the messages its audience is looking for.

Ms. Maue looked for a parallel for this dynamic outside of higher education, and found one in health care. “If you’re a hospital founded to help the poor, I think that’s great,” she said. “But if I’m sick, I want to know you have the best doctors.”

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