How Brands Can Maintain Relevance As Students Redefine Higher Learning

Distance learning and remote teaching became sudden, top-line discussions this spring when COVID-19 made them the sole options for students and parents alike.   Fast-forward to today, when the discussion is pivoting to what lies ahead for the fall.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, tracking more than 860 college/university plans, found that two-thirds of colleges are readying for students returning in person, and 7% are planning to hold classes solely online, according to an article in USA Today. Other institutions remain undecided.

This period of uncertainty has caused many young people to reconsider both the value of a college education and the debt that follows. Why pay full tuition for online classes or spend another semester learning from home?

In 2020, total student loan debt eclipsed $1.5 trillion, making it the second largest consumer debt category, only behind mortgages. It’s no wonder that community colleges have seen an uptick in enrollment, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.



Students aren’t the only ones rethinking higher education’s value; in mid-March, Moody’s downgraded it from stable to negative.

The evaluation of young adults’ goals when it comes to work, education, and their overall success and life path, will have long-term implications for brands.

The college campus has traditionally provided many marketers with a captive and attentive audience. If the number of students who enroll in university significantly declines, what was once a very efficient targeting strategy will be diminished.

Brands will have to rethink and diversify their strategies for reaching this demographic with the same experience and excitement elsewhere.

For example, advancing through young adulthood has never been linear for millennials, and COVID-19 is going to make it even less so for Gen Zs. Targeting this demographic will become less and less linear by the day.

The disruption in the education system will give way to innovations, and not just for those who are on the cutting edge of teaching. As youth look for educational alternatives, the “gap year” (or two) may take on a new meaning.

Does this present an opportunity for your business to develop virtual internships or apprenticeships? Will there be a renaissance and a desire for more opportunities in national service programs?  

The Lambda School, for example, could become the next generation phase of education. It’s live, online, and uses interactive technology to teach people the tech skills needed to launch a new career in nine months. Students do not start paying tuition until they obtain a job that pays at least $50K per year.

The start of college was typically a point of entry into many categories to reach the next generation of consumers. From big-ticket items like student loans, to smaller ones like dorm décor, entering into higher education is a rite of passage that for many also necessitates buying a serious amount of products and services. Deloitte’s 2019 Back-To-College Market Study estimated that the average back-to-school spend per student was $1,362, or $25.1 billion nationwide.

For brands that rely on the critical “back-to-school” marketing season, how can you pivot your offerings to continue to be relevant for a student who may not be heading “back to school”? Are there ways to meet youth at home, as opposed to independently, and does this present new opportunities for intergenerational buying?

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