Managing a college or university hasn’t been a winning numbers game for a long time. In this pivot-or-perish environment, schools that are thriving have found ways to build relevance, even in an era of declining enrollment and rising costs.
For many, that success has come from following basic rules of luxury marketing. Those strategies can feel uncomfortable. While top-tier schools have long operated as elite and exclusive, much of the academic world prefers to be seen as inclusive and egalitarian. The reality, though, is that for many, college has become a luxury, like it or not. The question is determining how your school can best navigate this luxury landscape.
Luxury brands have pricing power, something all schools need in an increasingly commoditized world. Students pay hundreds of thousands for the same education they can find at EdX or Coursera because of the perceived value of the brand and experience. It’s the same reason that wristwatches endure, even though cellphones keep perfect time.
In fact, Rolex and Patek Phillipe outshine many financial investments. And you will never see a Hermès Birkin bag or Tiffany & Co. bracelet on sale. Historically, these companies can raise prices each year above inflation rates without sacrificing sales.
Many schools are gaining relevance and increasing their applications by elevating education from a functional offering to an aspirational experience using core luxury tenets.
First, they understand where they (and competitors) fall on the vertices of a luxury triangle. This often includes:
Luxury Elite: The most expensive schools, led by the Ivy League, know they are selling a priceless dream. They represent the pinnacle of social status, offering a priceless and incomparable educational experience.
Wealth and exclusivity are baked into their appeal. Think of Harvard’s extensive endowment and network, which provides unparalleled resources and opportunities to students. Or consider Williams College, which promotes an intimate, bespoke experience akin to a luxury boutique service. With collegiate opulence, these schools reinforce their social cache by bestowing a sense of privilege on those lucky to attend, focusing on research contributions, famous faculty and graduates.
Premium Prestige: These schools stand out by marketing pragmatic reality that reinforces pillars of quality, performance, and rational comparison. One example is the University of Virginia, combining a rich historical legacy with a commitment to leadership. Another is Georgetown University, with its prime location in Washington, D.C., and strong emphasis on public service and practical, world-shaping experiences. As a result, both schools foster a strong sense of belonging for students and alums that is hard for other schools to rival.
Challengers: These are the institutions finding new vectors of seduction. They are tapping trends and turning to in-demand specializations. With its rapid acceleration of leadership around artificial intelligence, Carnegie Mellon is encroaching on schools like MIT and Caltech. And Babson College stands out with its singular focus on entrepreneurship, luring many applicants away from staid undergrad business programs.
Luxury best practices for higher ed
Even as education’s functional value is questioned, schools can extend their emotional brand value, studying classic luxury moves from brands like Porsche, Gucci, Qatar Airways or Dom Perignon:
Tell stories that cement the dream. Aspirational narratives provide a unique path to relevance and a framework for developing experiences and engagements that support the brand identity. For some, that means focusing on heritage. Others may concentrate on a sense of place, which is so crucial in the days of remote competitors. Schools can also promote new “heroes” like AI or robotic surgery.
Redeploy alums as brand ambassadors Many institutions believe they’re getting all the mileage they can from alums, but this untapped community has gained outsized importance in an era of influencer marketing. Each graduate is more than a potential donor. They are a viable marketing asset and should be cultivated as crucial lifetime brand advocates.
Building long-term brand connectivity can boost contributions, engagements and activism. In many ways, this network can function like the loyalty programs of airlines and high-end retailers, constantly drawing members back, rewarding them for their insider status.
Restrict access to heighten perceived scarcity. In an era of declining enrollment, looking for growth from volume is no longer realistic, which means it’s time to pivot to value and how much you can extract per student.
Schools can do this by using athletics and academics to enhance their reputation. Many state universities have done so well with this tactic that they’ve eclipsed smaller liberal arts colleges. But private schools win this way, too. Vanderbilt University, for instance, has blossomed from a local college to a “Southern Ivy.”
While the higher education sector is adopting certain aspects of luxury branding, the key to future success lies not in exclusivity alone. Instead, schools should focus on forging a relevant, differentiated identity that resonates with contemporary students and society.da