Covid-19 and cohort marketing. What do they have in common?



  Covid-19 and cohort marketing   What do they have in common?





Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping warned the Communist Party cadres to be prepared for unforeseen incidents (black swans) and uncontrollable rampages (gray rhinos) in the year to come.  On February 27th, Nikkei Asian Review reported the following: Covid-19, the black swan that began in Wuhan and flew to all parts of China then turned into a gray rhino stomping across national borders to all parts of the world.

Although I would use a pencil when writing about the short-term and long-term implications of Covid-19, it is apparent that the virus has disrupted the economies of countries worldwide. We live in a world of vertiginous events, with norms constantly unraveling. 

Higher education is not immune to worldwide economic, political and health disruptions. The current “supply-chain” of the internationally mobile student has been disrupted. Covid-19 has changed what had been the norm for international student mobility. 

 For this reason, I believe international deans, educators and recruiters should consider an additional way of recruiting international students.                                 

Rationale for Cohort Marketing

Many of you reading this article have directly or indirectly been involved in recruiting domestic and international students. You have attended college fairs, collected individual information on prospective students, either in person or online, spent money purchasing lists of prospective college students or hired consulting firms to assist with yield management.

Many of you reading this article have been held solely responsible for meeting your institution’s enrollment and financial goals. Campuses throughout the world are littered with the bones of fired admission deans, international recruiters and enrollment managers.

What I am proposing in this article is adding another layer to current marketing plans: cohort marketing. 

Cohort marketing is not a bag of tricks or a series of quick fixes. It is however another way of looking at a current problem in higher education marketing, recruitment, and enrollment. 


Cohort marketing is recruiting groups of undergraduate and graduate students based on research and already-existing transfer, articulation and collaborative agreements.

Premise #1

One-by-one recruitment of students to meet enrollment and financial goals will not result in meeting these goals.

Premise #2

A cohort marketing team includes not only enrollment managers, deans and directors of undergraduate and graduate admission, but also brings to the table the dean or director of international students, the chief transfer officer, the director if financial aid, the director of research, the study abroad advisor and the director of alumni affairs.

Premise #3

A review of all current transfer and articulation agreements as well as all study abroad affiliations will reveal current schools in collaborative agreements that have the potential to enroll cohorts of students through 2-plus-2 arrangements for transfer or 3-plus-1 arrangements for degree completion.

Premise #4

Deans and directors of admission should identify high schools and local colleges that have the greatest potential for cohort marketing. Outreach to companies and organizations should also be investigated. 

Premise #5

Targeted outreach to students, through online learning, is another avenue to enroll cohorts of students, especially during the summer months.

Premise #6

The president, vice chancellor or provost should designate a senior administrator with the authority to sign future articulation, transfer or collaborative agreements. University counsel should also be involved in the process.

Premise #7

The director of alumni affairs as well as all academic deans should have a seat at the table when strategic enrollment plans are written.

Premise #8

A certain percentage of each semester’s new enrollment goals should be assigned to cohort markets.

Premise # 9

One designated administrator, perhaps from the research department, should be assigned the task of continually investigating potential student cohort markets.

Premise #10

Cohort marketing is not a static exercise, something that appears in an annual report. It is an evolving enterprise and should be continually reviewed as new opportunities arise. Outcomes should be shared with all appropriate members of the collegiate community. Success of this type of marketing should be reviewed not just in terms of enrollment but also which students recruited in groups progress and graduate.

Cohort Marketing Examples

The following are examples of cohort marketing that I initiated during my tenure as vice president for enrollment and international programs at Suffolk University in Boston.

International Campus – Suffolk University established a branch campus in Dakar and enrolled students from over 40 African countries. Students studied for two years in Dakar and then, as a group, transferred to Boston to complete their undergraduate degree: cohort marketing

Two-plus Two Agreement – Suffolk University partnered with Dean College, a local two-year school. While enrolled in Dean College, students were able to take Suffolk courses taught on the Dean College campus by Suffolk faculty. Suffolk University registered groups of Dean College students in Suffolk courses: cohort marketing

Suffolk University entered into an agreement with Shanghai Lixin University of Commerce. Suffolk faculty taught students enrolled in the articulation agreement program during the summer months. Groups of Chinese students registered for Suffolk University courses: cohort marketing.

 In cooperation with the registrar and the international enrollment staff, Suffolk University created an online “third semester” in the summer for Suffolk business students focusing on the courses still needed by many of the students to graduate. Groups of students, principally from the Middle East, enrolled in courses while at home for the summer: cohort marketing.

How to begin  – Ten suggestions

Obtain presidential or vice chancellor support

Be certain all appropriate staff understand the need for change

Include all staff necessary for successful execution of cohort marketing

Include faculty in all cohort marketing discussions

Coordinate cohort marketing with academic objectives

Have a clear understanding of the student cohorts most likely to enroll and why

Access relevant data and research when drafting cohort marketing strategies

Concentrate on producing a few, well-targeted results

Conduct an audit of cohort marketing strategies every three months and adjust, if necessary

Give cohort marketing time to develop and mature  


In an opinion article written in The South China Morning Post on March 3rd, Lawrence J. Law wrote: “We must rethink our travel and global supply chain.” I would suggest that this same sentiment is applicable to future international student mobility.

 I trust I have painted a vision in this article with words and suggestions that carries the argument for adding to current international recruitment practices another method for recruiting international students to your campuses.  For international deans and recruiters, buffeted by the uncertainty caused by Covid-19, a shift in perspective that encourages something completely new is not iconoclasm but it is a tocsin call to change.



This entry was posted in Colleges, Foreign Students, International Education, International students, Universities by Marguerite Dennis. Bookmark the permalink.

About Marguerite Dennis

Marguerite Dennis has been recruiting internationally for over 25 years, first at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and then at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. During that time she was responsible for establishing a branch campus for Suffolk University in Dakar, Senegal and Madrid, Spain. Marguerite increased the international student population at Suffolk University by 193% from 1993 to 2011 and increased the number of study abroad programs by 135%, from 20 to 47. She monitored the recruitment programs for Suffolk University in 20 countries and hired a network of 10 international educational consultants. She signed agreements in Viet Nam, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Germany, Mexico, France and Argentina.

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