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Non-Profit Ad Spending Now Equals the For-Profit Sector

Bob Brock

Higher education marketing breached a milestone in 2013 when colleges and universities invested more than $1.24 billion in paid advertising.

Surprisingly, overall advertising purchases by non-profit colleges and universities (including public and private institutions in 2-year and 4-year categories) during the year essentially equaled the total amount invested by the for-profit higher education sector:*


Despite the parity of overall investment by for-profit and non-profits, there was a sizeable difference in the average amount spent per institution:  3,420 non-profit institutions (public and private, 2-year and 4-year) invested, on average, $179,693 each last year.


Meanwhile, 417 for-profit educational institutions invested an average of  $1.48 million each. In addition, 328 foreign institutions invested $9.5 million in the top 210 U.S. markets during 2013.

For-profit and non-profit marketing directors used different strategies in timing and choice of media platforms. For-profits, for example, spent heavier in quarters one and three of the year, while non-profits focused more media purchases in quarters three and four.


For-profit institutions chose TV, Internet Display, and Cable TV as their favored media platforms, with significantly less interest in Radio, Newspapers, Magazines, and Outdoor channels.  In fact, for-profits spent more than twice what non-profit colleges did for both TV and Cable TV.


Meanwhile, non-profit institutions chose Internet Display advertising as their strongest first choice platform, with TV as second choice.  Non-profits also invested significantly more dollars than for-profit colleagues in Outdoor, Radio, Newspaper, and Magazine platforms.

Because of the strong preference for TV platforms among for-profit advertisers, broadcast television remains the preferred overall platform for higher education marketing efforts, but the gap has been closing steadily.  Internet Display advertising is likely to overtake TV as the No. 1 media platform in 2014 – among non-profit advertisers, it already has.


Two elements emerge as clear trends for 2014 higher education advertising: the overall investment in paid advertising will continue to grow, and the movement toward Internet advertising in all of its myriad distinctive channels will become the preferred platform for most, if not all, college and university advertisers.

Contact EMG with your comments or questions about individual markets and/or specific institutional ad spends.

Advertising spend data source is Kantar Media, which tracks advertising placements in the top 210 DMA’s in the U.S. by all institutions of higher education. Data excludes expenditures in rural areas outside of designated DMA’s, search-word advertising (SEM), and paid sponsorships.  Internet display ads are included.

12 Replies to “Non-Profit Ad Spending Now Equals the For-Profit Sector”

  1. Bob, good stuff that confirms what I would suspect from observing the Los Angeles market. It’s too bad the data doesn’t include SEM. it would be good to see the differences in AdWords spends. Finally, it probably should be noted that the non-profit data is skewed to some degree by institutions that have contracted with for-profit online program management companies that invest a great deal in advertising in exchange for a revenue sharing model. In such instances, non-profits tend to behave more like for-profits because the for-profit company is running the show, at least the lead generation and admissions show. Thanks for your post.

  2. Hey Rick! Glad to hear affirmation in what you’re seeing. You bring up several outstanding points! We agree about SEM, especially since we think colleges and universities are using SEM pretty heavily. We’ll work on acquiring that data and including in the overall numbers. Your point about the for-profit management of non-profit online programs is also a good one. Suspect you’re right about that factor skewing the data a bit. Thanks for the great additions to the discussion!

  3. Joseph:
    Not sure what Rick has seen on this, but we (at EMG, authors of this post) have seen very rapid escalation of non-profit ad spending over the last four years. We do not have quantifiable data prior to 2013 on ad spending by category, so we can’t quantify growth over that period. But we expect non-profit ad spends to exceed for-profit investment in 2014, although the per-institution levels will still remain much below the per-institution spends by for-profits. So many more non-profits are seeing the need for, and benefits from, advertising that the cumulative impact is significant! Last Quarter of 2013, for example, saw more than 350 non-profits join the advertising ranks for the first time. Stay tuned.

  4. This is absolutely amazing data that you have compiled here (quite amazing numbers). Do you have more recent figures showing that schools now focus much more on internet marketing? SEM/SEO was definitely the largest part (by far) of our marketing budget when I was working with a private for profit business school.

  5. Jonathan, thanks for the comments, much appreciated! Yes, we do have Q1 and Q2 data on marketing allocations by platform, that we’ll be posting shortly. You’re not alone in increasing your allocations for online marketing – the data (and our client spends) shows ongoing growth in internet-based paid advertising as a percentage of overall dollars invested. Look for more EMG posts using our exclusive media buy data in the coming weeks!


    1. Thanks a lot for your reply Bob! Much appreciated; and yes, not such a surprise to finally see the schools operating a needed switch in their marketing strategies. In China, we have noticed more and more schools hiring Social Media agencies to strengthen their social media presence (in other words, the switch is not only to move more and more towards online marketing but also to allocate more and more resources towards mobile marketing). Anyway, you guys are doing an astonishing job! Thanks for the hard work and super useful information!

    2. Amazing data Bob&Team! Same here, I would love to know the updated data with the SEM/SEO included (if possible). Is it already posted?

      Thank you and congrats

      1. John:
        Thanks for the note, glad it was helpful. We’re working on updates as we speak, stay tuned for those! Unfortunately the data for SEM is not as reliable at this point as that for traditional platforms, so we only publish buy comparisons for online display advertising. Hopefully, online search engine marketing will become more accessible in the future!

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