Insights — The Higher Ed CMO Has Arrived...And So Have Expectations

The Higher Ed CMO Has Arrived...And So Have Expectations

2023-2024 CMO Study / February 25, 2024
Steve App
Steve App

A decade ago, SimpsonScarborough partnered with The Chronicle of Higher Education to publish the first iteration of our Higher Ed CMO Study. Back then, the role of the Chief Marketing Officer was in its infancy—we explicitly asked if marketing was considered a "bad word" on campus—and the trailblazers that first claimed this title were void of the critical benchmarking data that helped them make a case for the resources they needed.   

This data proved so valuable that we conducted the study again in 2016. And then again in 2019. And yet again in 2021. And while industry data evolved with each iteration, our overarching message to college and university leadership remained the same: you need a Chief Marketing Officer.


But now, ten years later, it's time to acknowledge that the higher education Chief Marketing Officer has arrived—and that there isn't a universal definition of what that actually means.   


The importance of marketing within higher education has never been more pronounced. Our industry continues to grapple with low levels of public confidence, even among those who have earned a 4-year college degree and are proud to have attended their alma mater. Demographics are shifting, and competition is intensifying. Public institutions are reacting to state policies prioritizing enrolling, retaining, and graduating in-state students. Many small, private, liberal arts colleges that have historically not needed to invest in marketing are increasingly squeezed by expanded competition on all sides: flagship public universities, which compete on brand recognition, and less competitive private colleges and universities, which compete on cost.  

While colleges and universities navigate evolving competitive waters, brand and reputation have become increasingly important to the most critical of audiences: prospective students. 69% of students and 73% of parents say institutional brand and name recognition are essential to their college search. 

On the surface, these trends demonstrate the need for near-universal growth in marketing investment. The data in our 2023-2024 CMO Study indicates otherwise. 

Visit The Higher Ed CMO Study Website

Higher education finds itself amid a great unevening. Your campus may be experiencing its
strongest growth rate in 14 years. Or you may be announcing sizeable budget cuts to align with a new reality of decreasing enrollment. Your campus may benefit from increased application volume, fueled by increases in the number of applications per prospective student and meaningful applicant growth among underrepresented minority, first-generation, and older prospective students. Or your campus may be slow or struggling to adjust to shifting demographics and audience demands.   

The gap between institutions thriving and barely surviving has never felt so significant, and that variability is undoubtedly present in the marketing budgets, staffing, and portfolios reported in our 2023-2024 Higher Ed CMO Study data.   

Amidst the fluctuation, one universal truth has emerged: CMOs at every level of tenure, campus size, and institution type are experiencing the strain of pronounced leadership expectations and resourcing that feels inadequate to meet them.     


Our goal through this study is to empower CMOs—to make strategic marketing decisions that help them grow as professionals and make a difference for the institutions they serve. We've condensed months of research, analysis, and strategic thinking into four key chapters. Each month, we'll publish a new chapter, along with corresponding webinars and supporting resources, to help you make the most of this valuable data.     

We begin with budgets and staffing, the foundation for higher ed CMOs moving their institutions forward. In the following months, we'll share our perspective on CMO job satisfaction, the importance and management of the .edu, and the need for CMOs to evolve how they measure and report on their efforts.

Watch the State of Higher Ed Marcom Webinar

The actions of campus leadership and chief marketing officers over the next 12-18 months will play a critical and, in some cases, existential role in future institutional health. Those who make significant cuts to their institutional marketing investment risk doing so to their own short- and long-term detriment. And those CMOs who fail to create a compelling case for the return on their existing investment are most at risk of experiencing those very decisions.

The financial constraints many higher ed institutions face make allocating resources toward effective marketing and branding even more crucial. As competition intensifies and students broaden their search, institutions must ensure their marketing strategies are well-funded and innovatively crafted to stand out in this increasingly crowded and diverse marketplace.  

Investing in marketing and branding is no longer a luxury; it is an essential tool for institutions to thrive in this new era of higher education.


A 15-year veteran of higher ed, Steve shapes the value SimpsonScarborough delivers to its clients, friends, and industry colleagues through its publicly available industry research and original content. A natural relationship builder, he also helps marketing leaders on campus understand how the agency can help them meet their individual and organizational goals. When not working, you can find him searching for new donut shops to visit or running (to burn off the donuts).