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Marketing for Public vs. Private Schools

by Sirley Carballo · May 20, 2022

Higher education institutions around the country have much at stake when it comes to marketing strategy. From battling enrollment challenges to creating online experiences that help students experience a sense of school community in a post-pandemic world, marketing tactics must rise with these changes.

Two college students holding books and smiling.

Although public and private schools face their own unique challenges in developing marketing efforts that hit the mark, there are also many similarities for campus leaders at these different institutions.

In this post, we’ll explore the differences and similarities between marketing to public versus private school students and their families. Whether you’re a recruiter, admissions expert, or campus leader, you’ll find valuable information to help your campus grow and to tell your school's story.

What is the difference between public vs. private schools?

One of the biggest differences between public and private institutions is how they receive funding. For public schools, this funding comes from tax dollars and governing bodies, such as the state or local government. Private schools are funded through tuition, endowments, and donations from alumni and stakeholders.

While the on-campus or online student experiences can be similar, some distinctions may exist between public and private school curriculum, demographics, and the cost of attendance. These factors may sway some students to choose one option over the other. 

Current trends in public vs. private higher education

Students choose public and private institutions for different reasons and unique motivations. Some of the factors behind these decisions may involve:

  • In or out-of-state tuition costs
  • Admissions criteria and entrance difficulty
  • Variety of academic programs available
  • Scholarships and financial incentives
  • Alumni referrals and personal connections

Regardless of which factors motivate students to attend public or private schools, both types of institutions currently face several challenges when it comes to enrolling new students. In 2021, the private school sector saw a 1.2% decline in enrollment. On the other hand, the public school sector observed a similar 3.1% decline in four-year programs. 

While some of these declining student numbers may be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders at both public and private schools must make a concentrated effort to attract a new cohort of students. 

Marketing professionals at both public and private schools are faced with creating personable messages that resonate with modern, digitally-savvy students.

Advantages of higher education marketing

In both the public and private school context, there are several benefits to having a workable higher education marketing plan in place. These benefits include:

  • Ability to understand a target audience – Whether you work in the public or private arena, understanding your target market is crucial to crafting an effective message. Explore which students and families your campus is most likely to attract. Develop targeted messages that speak to their priorities, expectations, and educational goals.
  • Opportunity to recruit new students and drive new prospects – The primary goal of new marketing messages is to ultimately recruit new students and increase enrollment. Marketing channels and platforms provide the chance to accomplish this, while gathering detailed information about leads and prospects.
  • Space to leverage new trends and data – An attentive marketer is one who listens to current trends and creates campaigns in response. Explore the data that’s available to you and your team, and analyze what it has to say about your marketing results to date. Which methods are working, and what should you try to change?
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Top marketing strategies to test at public and private schools

When faced with modern challenges, it can be difficult for education marketers to overcome roadblocks and develop new ideas. But whether you work at a public or private school, it’s important to stay up-to-date on new strategies and to think outside the box when choosing tactics that could make a difference.

To help you get a jump start on your public and private school marketing techniques, we’ve compiled a list of top strategies that both public and private institutions can apply.

Create and publicize a modern school brand

One of the most significant changes you can make — for both public and private institutions — is to update your visual brand. Many schools that have been around for decades are often steeped in rich history and nostalgia. While it’s important to honor this, modern marketing should reflect the expectation of modern students.

An updated and engaging brand can attract new students who may or may not be familiar with a school’s history. As the higher education landscape becomes increasingly competitive, branding is also a way to differentiate a school from its major competitors.

Major improvements for marketing purposes may include:

  • Updating a school’s primary logo, graphics, and color scheme
  • Revamping public-facing assets to the most current version
  • Designing or redoing digital assets (school websites and other sources) to have the same appeal

As you think about branding, think about it as your school’s first impression. Whether you represent a public or private institution, this first impression can attract or sway future students and their families.

Rely on personalization to reach new students

In higher education marketing, personalization means placing the student at the center of your overall strategy. Some schools have a tendency to place the institution first, especially if there is a rich history or widely known reputation.

Although such history can make a school more attractive as a choice, today's higher education messages must also provide clarification on what the student stands to gain. 

Personalization recognizes this shift in student needs, wants, and expectations. Student-centered marketing also prioritizes ease of use, which means that admissions steps are simple and more streamlined as a way to eliminate redundancy and make the process easier to follow and understand. This tactic matters for students who wish to attend either public or private schools. 

Invest in SEO improvements 

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving rankings on search engine results pages. In higher education, SEO is a long-run tactic, but it can make a significant difference in helping students find information about a school through organic search

For public or private schools that face stiff competition in the enrollment marketplace, SEO can help an institution’s content and web presence become more visible. In turn, this can reach more users and improve click-through rates. 

Are there differences in marketing approach?

One of the major differences in marketing approach between public and private schools is understanding who you are trying to reach and why.

Remember, students choose schools for their own specific reasons. Effective marketing teams will work to understand these motivations, while constructing messages and creating content that speaks directly to those concerns or decisions. 

To put it simply, the main difference between marketing to public and private school students (and their families) is simply knowing the audience and providing answers to their biggest questions or challenges.

Once you’ve nailed this down, your focus (at both types of institutions) is serving those students and families with helpful and practical content that guides them in their journey.

Student engagement makes a difference in both contexts

There’s no “one size fits all” solution to higher education marketing, regardless of the context. Yet that shouldn’t distract you from engaging with prospective students at every step along the enrollment journey.

When you remove barriers to entry, personalize the process for incoming students, and provide a multi-layered support approach, you’ll more easily reach both public and private school students. These factors are the essence of healthy, student-centered engagement.

Both private and public schools can benefit from a more complete understanding of the new era of admissions. In today’s higher education culture, students hold the power.

Public and private schools must reframe the experience in a new context that embraces new opportunities.

Now is the time to up your marketing game

Whether you serve a public or private school audience, don’t let your marketing tactics fall by the wayside. Now is the time to create targeted messages that strike a chord with modern students eagerly looking for post-pandemic education opportunities.

Book your Element451 demo today to learn how the right CRM platform can help you accelerate your private or public school marketing.


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