School Admissions: Generational Marketing and How to Market to Millennials

Generational differences can seem rather arbitrary. Many marketers love segmentation in the same way that grammarians like regular verbs, they fit a pattern. Verbs are one thing, but human beings are much more complicated. This is the problem with generational marketing, especially in schools. There used to be a time when promoting a school to a parent meant providing discipline, character and the most basic of education (think of the 3 Rs). But now, and especially with Millennial parents, the evolutionary formula has completely changed, and is not yet set in stone. 

Marketing's role in parent decision-making

The key when attempting to get a parent to choose your school, and particularly if they have to pay for tuition, is to find their tipping point. This term is used positively and can be found in consumer theory. It is only when the pro's of a decision outweigh the con's that action will be taken towards a decision. See figure 1. 

Will the pluses of a school outweigh the minuses in the mind of a prospective parent? This idea, above anything else is at the heart of deciding whether or not to send their progeny to your school. Lower tuition and they may be more inclined to come; their child doesn't seem happy during their visit, and they will probably go elsewhere. Marketing's power is to help diminish the negative, and accentuate the positive in the mind of the parents. See fig 2.:

A brief history of school promotion

The promotion of schools, especially private schools of any sort, has changed quite substantially. It used to rely on a question of status, values and availability. Such and such a school could provide a certain level of status for a family. A family of means that could afford to send their child to a private institution would relay their decision to their inner circle of friends, family and others. The type of school, and by extension the cost of the school was a way to show off the family's commitment to their children, and financial standing. Promoting to those parents was based on association and affinity. A Jewish family would likely send their children to a Jewish school, for example. An Catholic family would generally prefer Catholic schools... and so on. 

Then came the first level of complexity. Sectarian schools began accepting students from other faiths, some single-gender schools turned co-ed, and numerous "independent schools" sprouted to complement the already saturated "day schools" and "boarding schools". The educational market opened up and by extension so did school choice for parents. The latter had more choices than ever, but the financial restrictions were just as present. Promoting to these groups relied on differentiation, and this could be helped with some tuition assistance. 

More complexity arose with the arrival of "Baby-boomer" parents. This generation was the first truly "market" prospective parents as they tended to shop around for schools more than any previous generations. Schools were more generous with financial aid, programs, extra-curricular activities, and admissions. This meant that for any given school there were strong market forces which pushed and pulled at the status quo. Stakeholders also began to express discomfort with the process, insisting with a stronger and stronger voice that teachers needed to be isolated from the school's marketing. Marketing to Baby-boomers became about offering them choice and access mostly through programs and financial aid respectively. This mimicked the baby-boomers' societal requests for commercial choices, and equality of opportunity.  This forced schools to respond to both the internal and external pressures by involving teachers more and more in the admissions/hiring process and also it shaped the school administrator as a manager more than he/she had ever been before. 

The current generation of parents, those with students currently going through school also have similar needs, they are looking for access and choice, but also demand a sense of individuality and control that no previous generation had ever seen. The extreme examples of these parents are known as "helicopter parents". Schools have responded in a two pronged approach: firstly by pushing the concept of "school fit", and second by leveraging technology. It should be clear that schools continue to learn and change their promoting habits with the current generation, since they are still active parents, but generalities can be extrapolated.

The "school fit" concept comes straight from the admissions stage of a prospective parent's involvement with the school. "Is Suzy Q. a good fit for us?" will be a question asked by many an administrator and teacher. This allows the school to give part of what the parents are looking for, namely individuality. Should a school refuse admissions to a student, the parent will be able to be told that it is not their child which poses an issue, but that the school was "not a good fit", implying that there is something better out there for them, and that the issue is in the "relationship" between student and school. 

Schools have leveraged technology in an answer to the current needs that parents show when looking at communication (email instead of phone calls, limiting personal visits...etc), access to information (instant access to student's grades, class syllabi, school events), and control. 

Marketing to Millennial parents

The upcoming generation to send their children to school is the Millennial generation. There is no possibility to know exactly how they will react to marketing, but many strong points can be made. Firstly, it should be noted that this generation was first born in 1982, which makes the oldest members 33 years of age. Since the average age of a first time mother is 26 [1], this would make the oldest possible school child of a Millennial 7 years old, as of early 2016. Millennial's children are, of course, on their way. 

Promoting a school to Millennial is quite delicate, since they were students themselves in the not too distant past, so they will remember their experiences rather clearly. They require engagement, passion, values alignment, an international perspective, change and affordability. For this generation, complete and seamless use of technology is a pre-requisite. Getting these parents on campus is a difficult task. 

Schools should not be trapped into thinking that using Skype, or "Virtual Tours" on a website is sufficient. Millennials need technology as a way to personal connections; technology is social for the Millennial, and they can sniff add-ons or "let's-just-stick-a-virtual-tour-on-our-site-and-they-will-come " worldviews from a mile away. 

Engagement: Their children are not in school, the whole family is. Millennials need to be engaged in this that thy like and enjoy. Open your outdoor education trips with the students to parents as well. They are looking forward to sharing the enjoyment with their children. They are looking to learn too, in fact the lifetime learner ethos is a key component to their identity. Parent education should go beyond the book club or the PTA, it should be intertwined with the school's experience.

Passion: Millennials will have clear memory of the teachers which bored them, and they are not looking for the same with their own children. Prefers schools will not only showcase their achievements or activities, but they will also live it. Millennial prospective parents on a school tour will want to be moved by the energy of the classroom. 

Values alignment: They crave meaning. Schools should live their mission, and that mission needs to be in line with the Millennial's values. A recent survey showed that 91% of Millennials expect to stay in their current job for less than 3 years. How would those same Millennials look at 9 years of investment (K-8) or 13 years (K-12) for their own children if there is not a strong sense of values alignment. Values can include social justice, environment causes, experiential learning, language immersion, religious and character education among many others. 

International Perspective: Millennial world view is far more global than local. They might have spent a semester abroad in high school or college, and they remember it well. Some sort of international perspective is key to properly marketing to Millennials as this is seen as a strong differential, and it may tip parents towards your school compared to another. Ideas can include: study abroad programs, a foreign film club, the International Baccalaureate program, unique foreign languages taught in the school...etc. 

Change: Millennials are notoriously anti-hierarchy. In fact, they are often looking to develop a close relationship with their boss. There is little room for hierarchic or "it's-always-been-like-that" attitudes. Change is a requirement for Millennials, and this is what they will look for in their children's schools. For example should the product offerings be the same in a school as they were when the parents themselves were students ( not long ago), then there will be a sense that the school is stuffy and old-fashioned in the minds of the young prospective parent. 

Affordability: Millennials are looking for an affordable education, since due to their relative youth, they are not in possession of large sums of money. A mortgage and student loan payments are a lot to handle without a hefty tuition bill from their child's school. They will look for financial aid more than any other generation before them. 


Generational marketing is inherently an ineffective endeavor, since one can never completely generalize. That having been said, it is important to understand what makes each generation tick. The following table is a summary of how to market to each generation:

Millennial parents are breaking the rules, but they are also rewriting them. We as school marketers have 12 years before the first class of Millennial children graduate high school, and in keeping with the Millennial ethos, there is still so much more to learn. 




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