Marketing Universities

Student on campus

zimmytws, shutterstock

If you get the Globe and Mail newspaper, you might have noticed yesterday’s front news section has several university ads. That’s right, it’s “confirm your university choice” time for Ontario’s Grade 12 graduating students who have or expect offers of admission.

There are 22 universities in Ontario scattered across the province – and they are competing for students. They are distinguished by location, size and program offering. And there’s a hierarchy, both by university and by program within each university, in terms of admission standards.

Kids and parents will be thinking about a number of different factors when narrowing down a choice of university. Local or out of town? There’s a big cost difference between living at home or going away (residence runs about $13,000 right now). Big university (U of T) or small (Trent, for example)? U of T consistently ranks as Canada’s top university, but it can be seen as large and impersonal compared to the experience of a smaller school. Or is your choice driven by program? Engineering at U of T or Waterloo; business at Queen’s or Western; art at OCAD, for example.

Maclean’s publishes an annual ranking that acknowledges the diversity of choice across three broad categories: comprehensive, medical doctoral, and primarily undergraduate. It’s a great place to start to get a sense of how each school stacks up across a number of different dimensions.

So how do schools market themselves? There’s the obvious surface-level branding, with school colours and logo. York came out with an aggressive positioning campaign in 2012, This Is My Time (which seems to have disappeared since).

There’s active, out-bound marketing, which includes sending reps out to tour high schools and participate in university fairs, as well as advertising on the web and via traditional channels. The Toronto fair takes place in late September: my son went two years in a row and came back with scads of printed material, including comprehensive “viewbooks,” which describe each school, its programs, admission criteria and financial information.

Here’s a link to a downloadable Queen’s viewbook. (Having worked in non-profit marketing for most of my career, the scale and expense of the materials is breathtaking, but then the value of a sale is huge: four years’ worth of business.) They are beautifully put together, with high production values and lots of great photography.

Each university also has a comprehensive web site, with significant real estate devoted to prospective or future students in terms of application process, program offerings and program requirements. I’m pretty familiar with a number of sites, having spent quite a bit of time on them in the past year. There are also usually downloadable brochures for specific programs, often with a listing of potential careers that program grads have pursued. The sites can be confusing: since you go down layer by layer, you don’t always get the answer you’re looking for. McMaster has really good layout for future students on the program side: here’s the engineering page, with icons for all the top questions, including a careers icon.

My favourite is the open house experience. I’ve been to McMaster twice, and, alas, missed the Queen’s open house. They are a great way to get a sense of the campus and its buildings. Program-specific tours and talks give you good information about admission requirements and options. And residence tours give you a chance to talk to current students and get their sense of the school. It’s fun to see all the family clusters moving around the campus, full of the wonderment and potential of coming to university – moving away from home, taking that big first step to adulthood. The schools do a good job of making profs and students available to talk up their programs. Don’t forget to visit the campus book store so your kid can buy a school sweatshirt to tip others off to their intended choice.


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1 Response to Marketing Universities

  1. stevelpiazza says:

    My younger cousin just attended an open house at a college she is looking into. I was amazed by how serious she was about the tour. Personally, I enjoyed talking to the professors in the programs I was looking into. I found I was most interested in talking to the political science and econ professors so that was the field I ended up in. It’s funny what information we use to make these choices.


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