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How did University Digital Ad Spend Shift Amid the Pandemic?

How did University Digital Ad Spend Shift Amid the Pandemic?

Colleges and universities across the country struggled to respond to the COVID‐19 pandemic. 

But even as schools scrambled to keep existing students, faculty members, and community members safe, applications for graduate programs came pouring in.

How did advertisers initially respond and has spending returned to normal?

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Changes In and Out of the Lecture Hall as the Virus Spreads

Over the last few months, colleges and universities have been reopening for students after shutting down for several months. Most are pairing virtual classes with small group settings, outdoor classes, mask mandates, and social distancing guidelines in an attempt to keep campuses COVID‐free. 

“COVID has a way of coming in,” said Bruce Teague, Iowa City mayor, “even when you’re doing all the right things.” For many colleges, this held true. Despite regulations, guidelines, and changes, many universities became hotbeds for new outbreaks. Some shut down just weeks after reopening.

In some cases, the increased number of cases could easily be blamed on students’ or communities’ disregard for safety precautions. In others, the outbreak seemed a natural response to having so many people in one place: a lecture hall, sorority house, or dining hall.

But college students didn’t just put themselves at risk. The other residents in college towns also suffer: whether it’s neighbors suffering outbreaks with students around or businesses suffering from a lack of business.

“That’s 14,000, 15,000 students who are not going to convenience stores, buying pizza, buying sub sandwiches, you know, frequenting the bars,” said Christopher Paladino, president of the New Brunswick Development Corporation. New Brunswick is home to Rutgers university, where the overwhelming majority of students are doing remote learning.

College Enrollment Spikes Even as On‐Campus Opportunities Decrease

Historically, recessions tend to be times of increased college enrollment. For example, college enrollment grew by 3 million from 2006 to 2011 during the last economic recession. The recession set off by COVID‐19 seems to be having the same effect.

“I fully expect to see a pretty large spike in graduate school applications this upcoming year,” says David Lang, professor and chair of the economics department at Sacramento State University. “I expect people are going to pick up an extra major, minor or pick up incompletes. What’s the hurry to finish? You’re going to rush out there for no job?”

Lang points to an uncertain and competitive hiring scene as a driving factor behind this increased enrollment.

Meanwhile, medical schools have seen a 17% increase in applicants this year, showing the highest interest in the past decade. Applicants cite the visibility of healthcare professionals during the pandemic, as well as the clear need for more in the field, as deciding factors in their decision to apply.

At the same time, many medical schools have relaxed their application and entry requirements—as the MCAT and in‐person internships have become unsafe.

MediaRadar Insights


We analyzed B2B digital advertisers within the Colleges and Universities category year-to-date (YTD) and looked at their total spending compared to the same time period last year.


Overall, the colleges and universities ad spend category is flat YoY. 

During the early days of the pandemic, schools and universities advertised heavily on B2B websites—some weeks tripling in overall spend. 

The largest spike occurred in April, but in the last few weeks these spending trends returned to levels more consistent with 2019.

The top 5 digital advertisers YTD, in no particular order, are: 

  • Columbia Southern University in Alabama
  • Columbia University in New York
  • The George Washington University
  • Penn State
  • University of Cincinnati 

Though these are major schools, these brands make up only 6% of digital ad buy in B2B markets YTD. Despite the uptick in interest in higher education, advertisers represent a sliver of B2B advertising.

Columbia Med School Ad
ECH Higher Ed Ad
Penn State Ad

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