The bad news: Undergraduate enrollment has fallen 5.9 percent in the last year, while community college enrollment is down 11.3 percent. International student applications have fallen by 20 percent. This trend is only expected to get worse, with the country facing a shortage of high school students come 2025/26 due to declining birth rates. Between COVID-19, high levels of un- and under-employment, and financial struggles, experts predict higher education will face extreme challenges in the coming years. Some institutions have already closed, and even tenured professors are finding their jobs in jeopardy.
The truth is, our education system is changing. Many of these changes—increased online access, movements towards diversifying syllabi, a renewed focus on affordability—are important, and long overdue. Administrators are eyeing classes with low enrollments as budget cuts force hard choices. And this upheaval creates new challenges for educators, many of whom are now being asked to “justify” the value of their classes as departments battle for resources.
Marketing your classes (and, by extension, yourself) shouldn’t mean sacrificing teaching or research, however. There are some low-lift ways to increase your visibility and attract new students that are easy to implement; and, most of all, that should feel authentic to your role as an educator (and not a sales executive).
A few basic tenets of Marketing 101:
- Cultivate a strong “voice.” Using a website or your syllabus to display your personality allows students a sense of the kind of professor you are and the sort of atmosphere they can expect from class, which can help with the intimidation factor, especially for students who are new or might not have comfort with your discipline.
- Be authentic. We gravitate towards people who we experience as approachable, and displaying enthusiasm about your material can help students get excited, too.
- Aim for clear, concise language. Preparing a quick, easily replicable blurb for your classes that eliminates jargon can help attract students who might otherwise feel like the barrier to entry is too high.
We’ve put together the below with advice from professors who have used these low-stress, high-reward strategies to effectively increase enrollment.
Word of mouth
- Work with other professors to cross-publicize courses. Develop relationships with colleagues—both within your department and without—and offer to promote their classes to your current and former students (especially when there is overlap with subject matter). Offer to reach out to former students on behalf of your colleagues if one of their classes aligns with your students’ interests.
- If there are classes that are a clear funnel into yours—say, prerequisites or introductory classes—ask the instructors if you might be able to drop in and share more information about your course, or send them a slide with the relevant info. This is especially effective during the enrollment period. Even better, offer to guest lecture a class—one professor cites this as his most effective strategy for increasing his class enrollment.
- When you have space in a class, send an email to students you’ve connected with previously to let them know you’d welcome them back. One professor also suggests keeping track of students who were previously waitlisted and unable to enroll in your class as a target audience for under-enrolled classes in the future.
Build your profile
- Encourage students to use Rate My Professor (or other ranking systems popular in your field). While these platforms can be problematic, they are also extremely widespread, and many students rely on them when choosing courses.
- While it’s by no means a necessity, an active social media presence—one that is authentic but also shows that you are engaged with your field and with the university generally—can be a good promotional tool. You can also heighten your profile through an interview with the student newspaper or a guest spot on a podcast.
- Flyers are old-fashioned but effective. Post class flyers on your office door, the department bulletin board, or in related departments, student lounges, and other public spaces.
- Every school has a student advising department. Use yours! Cultivate relationships with the advising staff and let them know what requirements your courses fulfill so they can recommend them to students in need.
- Promote your class on various university listservs, and think beyond just your departmental reach. A course on constitutional law, for example, could be of interest to students in an LGBTQ+ alliance. Keep your course descriptions clear and accessible, and easy for other professors or students to share.
- Involve current students. One public speaking professor creates videos with her students to both document their progress but also advertise her course (with student permission, of course).
Make your materials pop
- If it’s in your wheelhouse, experiment with your syllabus format. Some professors have started making class “trailers” that they can share on YouTube or other social channels.
- You can even forgo a traditional syllabi altogether in favor of an interactive website. A simple webpage that publicizes your accomplishments and courses can suffice, but you could also create an online syllabus that uses images, links to articles, and other dynamic elements. Your website can also be a place to share syllabi from previous semesters and even positive pull quotes from past student evaluations (anonymized, to avoid issues of confidentiality).
- If your material warrants it, try an attention-grabbing class title. “Sex and Death,” for example, sounds a lot more interesting than “Ethics 101.”