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Education Advertising: Who is Spending the Most During COVID-19?

October 08 2020 by Sarah Fleishman

Some economists have long argued that rapidly inflating college tuition costs would be unsustainable in the long run. Today, the question is whether the novel coronavirus is bursting the US higher education bubble.

Universities also generate income through federal support and alumni donations, but tuition hikes are the only variable that these institutions can actually control to ensure they receive enough revenue to cover their operations. However, many potential students are losing confidence in the college degree, or at least opting to temporarily hold off on pursuing one until classes can safely return to session in-person.

So, which of these institutions are the top advertisers in higher education? And what messages seem most important for them to convey? We used Pathmatics marketing intelligence to take a look. This post covers data from August 25 to September 23, 2020.

Purdue University takes the top spot with a $3.8 million budget...

...And it’s focusing that spend on Purdue University Global, the institution’s accredited online higher education program.

Purdue University online education digital ads


Its top creatives are video ads mostly appearing on YouTube, but this university is targeting potential new students across a variety of social media and entertainment platforms, including one for downloadable content for the game The Sims.

Purdue University digital ads

Purdue has run 750 unique creatives from the end of August through the end of September. The college’s impressive library of video ads runs the gamut of potential motivations to go back to school online even during this challenging time.

Some celebrate the pride of graduating as a first-generation student, many demonstrate the flexibility of managing one’s own schedule, and others showcase the 175+ different programs available to online students at Purdue University Global.

Online school University of Phoenix is second with a $1.9 million budget

The University of Phoenix has long been a prolific in education advertising and has even paid settlements in the past for deceptive advertising practices to prospective students. COVID-19 is making online education seem like a much more favorable option than ever before, however, so how is the University of Phoenix advertising today?

YouTube is the top channel for University of Phoenix

Like Purdue, the University of Phoenix predominantly runs video ads on YouTube, followed by social media and entertainment-oriented channels. So, what content is the University of Phoenix running in its ads to entice scrollers to consider getting a degree online?

University of Phoenix ad


The creative that the University of Phoenix invested in most during our research period informs potential new students of last-minute opportunities to make higher education more affordable.

Other top creatives focus on the benefits of online school, similar to Purdue University Global’s strategy. They feature parents enjoying the flexibility of online school and receiving support from counselors to help manage balancing work, school, parenting, and more.

Western Governors University rounds out the top 3 spending $1.6 million

The pattern we’ve seen so far continues—Western Governors University also offers online degree programs, so although some universities have tried to continue in-person schooling, this is clearly not the most highly promoted option during the pandemic.

Western Governors University invests in YouTube

Western Governors is also similar to the other institutions on the top 3 in that it primarily advertises on YouTube, though WGU dedicated over 70% of its budget to YouTube ads compared to about half for the other two.

WGU invests in digital advertising on YouTube

WGU’s top creatives focus on its lower-than-average cost of admission and pricing model designed to allow ambitious students to get the most out of their investments. Many of the videos also showcase the opportunity for WGU students to become vocationally certified in their field of study in addition to earning a degree.

Bonus: Shaw Academy invests almost $3.8 million advertising short-term online courses instead of degrees

Shaw Academy’s advertising budget is comparable to Purdue University, our top advertiser in higher education. But, unlike our top three, this top player in the education space does not offer degrees.

Instead, Shaw offers short-term courses that may be appealing to would-be prospective students of traditional universities now considering alternatives to pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the COVID-19 era.

Shaw Academy digital ads on Instagram and Facebook

Shaw Academy aims to reach these prospective students on Facebook and Instagram. It offers courses in fields like graphic design, web development, photography, aromatherapy, bookkeeping, coding, and more.


This educational model appears to be gaining some traction. Even Ivy League universities are taking notice of trends away from treating college degrees as the uniquely viable format for pursuing higher education.

Harvard University digital ads on Twitter


In fact, 4 of Harvard University’s top 5 ad creatives over the same research period promote a 9-month analytics online program instead of an online degree program.

What industry trends would you be interested in exploring from the perspective of their top advertisers’ promotions and priorities? Check out Pathmatics Explorer to leverage the capabilities you’ve seen in this blog post for yourself.

About Author
Sarah Fleishman

With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.

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