Sales vs. Marketing: Why colleges and universities need both, and how they’re different.

Two hot-potato terms that higher ed leaders would just as soon not handle are “sales” and “marketing.” Many colleges and universities avoid them all together, doing their best to disassociate with anything from the world of business. In days still available to recent memory, it was possible to not engage those terms at all. Higher education “counseled” and “advised” students about enrolling or donors about giving. Any mention of “sales” was considered perverse.

Important cultural and technological advances forced higher ed to come to terms, as it were, with the notions of sales and marketing.

In many ways, higher ed has made friends with marketing. Today, most campuses have at least a director of marketing, if not a C-level marketing administrator. While we still hear resistance to describing students and families as “consumers” or “customers” or “clients,” we commonly hear “marketing,” “position,” and “brand” (as well as its evil twin “branding”) in our conversations with administrators and, yes, even faculty (though we still sometimes see rolled eyes, curled lips or bared teeth when speaking with the latter).

The word “marketing” has most certainly found its place on campus. Though the term is alive, it is unfortunately still often confused with promotion. The renowned Philip Kotler says that, at its root, marketing is simply exchange. Two parties have something that the other wants and marketing includes the components that make their exchange possible. Both have to offer something of value (product, service or money); the cost of the exchange has to be perceived as being of somewhat equal worth; and the parties must find each other to get together for the exchange (though they might do this online, for example). In order for those things to happen, they have to know about one another via some communication. In a nutshell, the Four Ps—product, price, place and promotion—form the core of marketing. Some marketers add other Ps like people or positioning, but again, promotion is only part of the equation, not the whole of marketing. Without attention to the other marketing Ps, promotion is an unwise investment.

Marketing is not merely promotion. Nor is marketing “sales.”

Use of “sales” may be the next huge hurdle for higher ed. Without sales, you would have no money with which to run your fine institution. It’s not imperative that we use the word “sales” to describe our recruitment, fund-raising or auxiliary enterprises. But it is absolutely necessary that we give attention to activity and behaviors that generate “sales.”

Just because we don’t care for a word doesn’t mean we should shirk responsibility for engaging in its practice.

Here’s the truth: We (by “we” I mean the whole of higher ed) have been “selling” all along. Even at the time of their founding, most campuses had to be “sold” in concept to a founding community, church or association. And while we prefer “counseling” and “advising” (both excellent concepts and frames of mind for admissions representatives) as terms for recruitment, the principles of selling are still largely at work in college admissions offices around the world. Even if we don’t like to call it that. My dear friend Dan Saracino cringes just a bit whenever he hears me use the word “sales” with our clients. He’s a master counselor with students. Still, he has a pitch. It’s student-focused as it should be but, even though he’s had great schools like Notre Dame and Santa Clara to promote, there’s a soft-sell narrative that he includes in his counseling.

But here’s the snag. Because we don’t like to call it sales, most campuses struggle with finding someone to take responsibility for it. Certainly, hawkers, hucksters, spin doctors or slick salespeople are not characters we find coherent with our missions or values. So to avoid the risk of being associated with that ilk, too often campus administrators fail to hold the frontline responsible for its most important contribution to the institution. Specifically, the work of admissions and advancement officers is couched in softer rhetoric that often deflates the significance and imperative of bringing positive closure to an admission decision or institutional gift. Relationship-building undergirds the work of our recruitment and advancement representatives, yet it needs to be clear that enrolled students and gift income are the expected results. Building great relationships opens the door to increasing revenue; that’s just reality. 

Part of the solution to better marketing and better sales is finding the right people to fill the right seats. Hire salespeople to do the work of sales. Hire marketers to do the work of marketing. While there is substantial overlap in those two arenas, marketers are not always great salespeople and salespeople are often not qualified marketers.

To help you distinguish between the two roles, we’ve prepared this chart to provide perspective about the focus of these two skills and types of professionals on your campus.


Sales Marketing
Recruiting students/shaping the class Customer needs and behaviors
Convincing parents, counselors, teachers, pastors Product feasibility and effectiveness
Securing donors Pricing models
Generating income Efficacy of delivery methods
Bottom line Promotional strategies
  Capacity for influence
Questions they would ask  
When’s the best time to schedule my visit to XY High School? When are students most inclined to choose a college?
Which high schools fed the most students last year? What prompted the leap in enrolled students from the X area?
Where’s the best place to meet with Mr. and Mrs. Donor? What do our donors expect from us in showing hospitality?
Who is the best representative to connect with Mr. and Mrs. Million-Dollar Donor? What motivates our donors to give?
How can I best tell the story of our academic programs? Which academic programs will most attract students from XY High School?
Who could I meet with at XY to help build awareness for our school? What’s the tolerance for a 4% tuition hike?
How many counselors can I include in our fly-in program? What programs are generating more enrollment nationally?
What data can I glean from our CRM that will help me better tailor my appeal? Which of our competitors offer the new programs we are considering?
  Is there potential for a dual-enrollment learning center on our campus?
  How can we lasso our technology to serve our constituencies across all our interactions with them?
Activities they engage in  
Calling students Writing a script for phone teams
Meeting with parents Engaging with campus leaders about pricing and discounting plans
Hosting a meeting with donors Developing a capital campaign presentation
Planning a special event Conducting a study to evaluate the efficacy of offering programs online
Inviting families to hear a visiting lecturer Investigating the competition to determine our points of differentiation
Giving a campus tour Assessing which academic programs attract the most students
Emailing high school counselors Charting a strategy to communicate with the Latino community in a neighboring city
Presenting at a college fair Recommending new program offerings to the provost or student life dean based on marketing data and trend lines
Meeting with students at a high school Developing a social media strategy for faculty engagement with prospective students
Helping a family make the right college choice Creating a plan to connect alumni with prospective students
Attending a performance featuring a prospective student Proposing automation strategies to increase the relevance and effectiveness of the university website
Golfing with a group of alumni donors  
What you shouldn’t hear  
I can’t do this without a new brochure Other schools are investing millions, so we should too
We don’t have the right leads This is how it’s always been done
My territory is really weak Let’s pretend that what we deliver already matches this new thing that we think students want
If I give out my phone number, someone might try to contact me after hours We should engage in this tactic or activity because our competition is already doing it.
I can’t work weekends  


In our consultation work for colleges and universities, we notice that our clients sometimes struggle with differentiating these two significant functions. Mind you, sales and marketing are closely related. We’re noticing a growing number of roles such as a Vice President for Enrollment and Marketing that link these two functions under one administrative umbrella. We hold that it’s fine to join these two functions to ensure the best cooperative efforts. But it’s not fine if they are not carefully distinguished one from the other.

In today’s competitive environment, campuses need salespeople and “closers”, skilled professionals who can bring a positive conclusion to decision-making—particularly in enrollment and development activities. Campuses also need marketers, those who can provide professional direction, not only how to tell your story, but also helping to make your true story stand out. By employing professionals in both specialties, campuses can gain confidence in reaching goals without dependence on artificial tactics such as increasing discount rates or hosting raffles—those activities that decry coherence. Activate and allow marketers to discover opportunities and inform the sales team. Equip your sales professionals in admissions and advancement to represent and engage with constituents in ways that bring bring closure and generate the revenue on which you depend.

  • Spread the word
Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.