Research: Media Expenditures Budgeting in Higher Ed

Marketing department media expenditures have been an important topic in student recruitment operations for more than 20 years. During the past decade, higher education providers have experienced a dramatic shift from print to electronic media as the main driver of their marketing operations. The resulting increase in electronic media expenditures has added a layer of complexity to the overall operations of marketing departments. To plan and budget strategically, and to compete in this emerging digital landscape, these departments must arm themselves with solid enrollment data and marketing metrics. To understand the current landscape of the marketing operations of higher education institutions, University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) commissioned a survey of members and partnered with Helix Education for a study examining media expenditures and budgeting strategies of various providers of higher education marketing departments. This research comes as part of a larger effort on the data-driven state of higher ed decision making.

Snapshot of Key Findings:

  • Electronic media spending has shifted from 4% of media budget in 1999 to 41% of media budget in 2014.
  • Marketing departments spend an average of $1,037,651 on marketing expenses, nearly half of which is dedicated towards media expenditures.
  • Eighty-three percent of respondents did not know the cost-per-inquiry of their most effective undergraduate marketing channel, and fifty-six percent did not know the cost-per-inquiry of their most effective graduate marketing channel.
  • Almost 70% of respondents did not know their overall conversion rate from point of inquiry to first-day start, and nearly half did not know their cost per enrollment.

UPCEA and Helix partnered to gather more data on a number of important topics related to higher education metrics. The survey was produced and conducted in February and March 2016. While 480 individuals participated, 391 qualified under the following study categories: enrollment marketing, enrollment operations, retention operation, online program management, program development, and data/analytics.

  • Program development: 151
  • Online program management: 88
  • Enrollment marketing: 74
  • Enrollment operations: 32
  • Data/Analytics: 38
  • Retention operations: 8

When referencing the joint Helix and UPCEA study, 27 educational professionals involved in enrollment and retention decisions participated in the budgeting, cost per inquiry and conversion rate questions. All figures and data cited as 2016 Helix Survey on the following pages pertain to these 27 individuals. Previously, UPCEA conducted a survey from late August to October 2014 in which 215 marketers and institutional representatives were surveyed with a 49% response rate. The error margin for the survey is plus or minus 5% at 95% confidence. Data and figures from that survey are cited as 2014 UPCEA Marketing Survey.

Detailed Findings

Current Landscape of Media Expenditure among Continuing Education Providers
The surveys found that marketing departments spend an average of $443,156 on media annually, representing almost half of the average total expenditure. Marketing departments of large institutions (gross revenue of $15M or more) spend an average of $710,640 annually, significantly more than marketing departments at medium ($5Mto $14.99M) and small (under $5M) institutions, but significantly less as a percentage of gross revenue.

The marketing surveys revealed that electronic media accounts for the largest portion of media spending at 41%, while print and direct mail combined account for the second largest at 34%. These numbers represent a fundamental shift in media spending over the past 15 years; in 1999, electronic media accounted for only 4% of media spending, while print and direct mail accounted for 75%. Electronic media expenditures are approaching the point where print media was 15 years ago.

Uncertainty in Budgeting
Perhaps the most notable finding of the current study is the lack of awareness of basic marketing and enrollment metrics. Eighty-three percent of respondents indicated that they did not know the cost-per-inquiry of their most effective marketing channel for undergraduate inquiry, and more than half made the same indication for graduate inquiry. Respondents also indicated uncertainty in tracking conversion rates. Sixty-eight percent stated that they do not know the overall conversion rate from point of inquiry to first-day start. Almost half indicated that they do not know their cost per enrollment.

Final Thoughts
Media spending among higher education institutions is a crucial part of the enrollment funnel. The need to strategically budget this expenditure is growing due to the changing competencies of different methods of inquiry. Marketing departments have seen a shift towards electronic media over the past 15 years, and are adapting their budgets accordingly. As a percentage of total media budget, electronic media spending now accounts for over ten times what it did in 1999. The UPCEA marketing survey shows that while most higher education providers are doing a good job of adapting to the evolving electronic media environment, many are uncertain as how to best track the resultant marketing metrics, including crucial markers like conversation rates and cost-per-inquiry. These marketing metrics are vital for making and tracking strategic budgeting decisions designed to create efficient and cost-effective gains in enrollment.


To learn more about how budgeting fits into your larger enrollment growth goals, download our free Enrollment Growth Playbook.

Danielle Caldwell

Danielle Caldwell is the Content Marketing Manager at Helix Education. Prior to her work with Helix, Danielle served as a full-time faculty member with Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication program in Salt Lake City. Danielle brings nearly a decade of experience in research, communication, and higher education, and she currently still teaches graduate courses in organizational communication and research methods as an adjunct professor at Westminster College.