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College Advertising at All-Time High

Bob Brock

Paid advertising by U.S. colleges and universities reached an all-time high of a $1.65 billion in 2016[1]. This represents a surge of 18.5% over 2015 expenditures and an increase of 22% since 2013, despite declines in advertising by the troubled for-profit educational sector.

Higher Ed Ad Expenditures, 2013-16

Higher Ed Ad Expenditures, 2013-16

Ad spending by non-profit institutions – both public and private – accounted for almost two-thirds of all expenditures (63%) on behalf of higher education.

All categories of non-profit institutions have increased advertising in recent years. For example, spending by 2-year public colleges nearly doubled (+48%) between 2013 and 2016.

Similarly, advertising by 4-year publics grew by 43% during that same period. Private non-profit institutions expanded their ad buys by almost 40% between 2013 and 2016, while for-profit institutions decreased advertising by 1.1% during the same period.

Advertising by Sector, 2013-16 (in millions)

Advertising by Sector, 2013-16

Online channels continued to grow as the preferred platform for college and university media advertising, garnering 44% of the overall ad investments in 2016, up from 42% a year earlier. TV and Cable platforms remained the second highest-revenue media choice for academic advertising, receiving 34% of total ad spends.

Advertising Allocations by Platform, 2016

Advertising Allocations by Platform, 2016

The increasing advertising investments coincide with steady declines in overall higher education enrollment over the past six years. Since 2011, U.S. fall enrollment in colleges and universities has decreased by 7.9%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Contributing factors include flat and declining high school graduate populations in many regions of the country, continuing increases in the rate of employment (with many prospects choosing a job instead of college), rising costs of a college education, and signs that there has been an erosion of public confidence in the value of traditional college credentials.

Another factor spurring the growth of ad budgets has been the increasing interest in online courses and degree programs. As online enrollments have continued to be the strongest growth area in higher education, an expanding number of public and private institutions have jumped headlong into the online marketplace to offset market weakness in traditional bricks-and-mortar audiences. The fiercely competitive online marketplace has further increased overall advertising spending levels.

In upcoming blogs, we’ll delve in greater depth into the marketplace forces that are driving advertising and marketing growth and the startling dollars that some institutions are investing.

[1] Based on ad tracking data from Kantar Media and EMG estimates for online advertising. Data reflects estimated spends in traditional advertising based on placements tracked in 230 DMA’s across the U.S. in cable/TV, radio, print, and out-of-home platforms and in online paid ads on the top 7,000 public websites, as compiled by Kantar Media. Paid advertising in Search, social media, Pandora, mobile apps, and display ads on networks outside the top 7,000 U.S. sites have been estimated by EMG. Ad investments are estimated should be considered approximate and directional only.

Find out more about EMG’s experience and thoughts on advertising and research.

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