11/13/2012 04:45 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Higher Education Can Learn from an Endless Campaign

To the relief of many in our state and nation, the 2012 political campaign has finally ended. Gone, but not forgotten, are the seemingly endless strategizing, debates, attack ads and, of course, the gaffes, missteps and surprising turns that made the run-up to this election one of the most memorable, sensational and costly in history.

Yet another, less dramatic, but highly influential element of the campaign has not disappeared; in fact, it is with us constantly, having shaped this election, and promising to shape the one after this and the one after that.

It's the data -- more precisely, what the data tell us not just about who voted but which voters conformed to expectation, which ones performed more or less on cue among the electorate and who will be targeted next time when technologically savvy political campaigners chart their strategies not with traditional bumper-sticker branding but computers.

Writing in The New York Times the day after the election, Michael Cooper characterized the competition that "pitted pundits against pollsters" as "a pitched battle between two self-assured rivals: those who relied on an unscientific mixture of experience, anecdotal details and 'Spidey sense,' and those who stuck to cold, hard numbers. When the results were tabulated, it became clear that data had bested divination."

The science of campaigning did not supersede the art of electioneering. They appeared to become one and the same. For President Obama to win, as the Associated Press on November 8 recounted his re-election strategy, it was a matter of performing "exactly the way his campaign had predicted: running up big margins with women and minorities, mobilizing a sophisticated registration and get-out-the-vote operation, and focusing narrowly on the battleground states that would determine the election."

Obama's team set their sights on those voters who could be of most use to the campaign. Voter research, identification and target marketing helped produce the reality of November 6, and will do so for all other national elections in our lifetimes.

Polls and number crunching are nothing new in elections. But as a college president, I watched the campaign with special interest this time because of the extent to which target marketing, accompanied by relentless analysis of prospective-voter data generated, reminded me of our own marketing of educational opportunity at Bethany College.

An election analogy to the marketing of my institution would go something like this:

In days gone by, politicians would walk the streets, knocking on doors, handing out trinkets, hoping to attract a critical mass of sympathetic voters.

In the past, admissions representatives would put in appearances at various college fairs, talking with anyone who stopped by our displays, handing out brochures and reply cards and hoping to attract a critical mass of future freshmen.

Now, both strategies have become more refined. Thanks to the data, politicians (or their representatives) still walk the streets and knock on doors -- but it's a matter of determining in advance which doors to approach. Thanks to their data, colleges still focus on attracting freshmen, and even use the occasional brochure or viewbook -- but it's a matter of determining in advance which freshmen we want to attract, and how.

At Bethany, our prospective-student data determine our desired student profile along with what, if any, advertising to purchase, what messages to deliver to whom (whether early-deciding high school freshmen or sophomores, or late-deciding high school juniors and seniors) and what media to employ. We still invite students and their families to campus visitation days (no social-media message replaces the personal touch by admissions counselors and faculty), but by the time their vehicles drive up to Old Main, we've already had our prospective incoming freshmen on our electronic radar for months, if not years.

As is true with some political campaigns, the college targeting strategy can overcome perceived negatives. One is cost, and the public's growing preoccupation with value for the investment of four years and thousands of dollars in a prestigious, private, liberal arts college like Bethany. Another is family history. Proud that their sons and daughters may be the first in their families to enroll in post-secondary education (true for some 30 percent of freshmen at colleges such as ours), families may nevertheless find financial-aid processes and academic expectations daunting at first.

Our solution with target marketing is to assure our audience that we have chosen to invite them over other audiences, that we want their sons and daughters to enroll at Bethany, that we will work for their success in return for their vote of confidence in our institution.

Sound familiar?

Sophisticated marketing and advertising are expensive, so the pay-off better be clear from the start. More than that, our student constituency represents a long-term investment in our institution's future. We want students who will be the best fit for Bethany, as we hope to be for them. That's not just any student, I tell our campus-visitation audiences who have been summoned with the help of advanced research... it's you.

As with deciding on a candidate in an election, the decision to attend a particular college or university is not only highly personal but it should also be an informed one. Behind those decisions are the data that connect the dots to craft the image to generate the strategy to produce the desired outcome. Higher education institutions that are not sensitive to data gathering in building their enrollments certainly need to be.

Like the election of 2012, enrolling a freshman class is one long campaign. And increasingly, we college administrators don't like surprises any better than political candidates do.