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What Our Students Can Tell Us About Marketing the CSU

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Glen Brodowsky (San Marcos)

ASCSU Secretary and Marketing Professor at San Marcos Glen Brodowsky, together with his students in Marketing 305, analyzed a list of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) examples that were generated by discussion teams of CSU administrators, faculty, students, and staff this past August at a retreat workshop at the Office of the Chancellor. 

Here are the results.


Table I. SWOT Analysis of the CSU


Low tuition


Large student population

Multiple diverse campuses

13,000 online and hybrid courses



Rising demand

Rising costs of education

Competition for resources: UC; CCC

Competition from for-profits


Poor marketing infrastructure

Poor funding structure

Scheduling to meet student needs

Poor internal communications

Lack of a unified voice and identity

Poor self-image


Lack of clear system-wide vs. autonomous identity


Budget limitations

Political interference

Changing public attitudes


Rising costs of education

Rising demand

Strengths and weaknesses are internal to the organization and are, to varying degrees, within our control. Opportunities and threats are external. The system-wide vs. individual campus debate is internal and could also be listed either as an opportunity or a threat, but a threat from within. Some strengths are also listed as weaknesses, and some opportunities are also listed as strengths.  It all depends on your perspective.

The Goal of SWOT and Strategic Marketing

The goal is simple.  We need to maintain a strategic fit between the environment and the CSU. 

As the external environment constantly changes (public opinion, economic forces, political forces, technological forces), we must match what we do to meet those changes.  That doesn’t mean we change our mission.  What it means is that we need to look at how our internal strengths can be leveraged to exploit new opportunities and to bolster areas in which we are weak in order to stave off threats.

If we are not willing to even consider adapting to the needs of a changing environment, then there is absolutely no point in doing such an analysis.

The SWOT table provides myriad ways to formulate strategies.  Below, I provide an example:

External Environment Threat and Opportunity

“Rising demand for higher education”

This relates to the skyrocketing tuitions at private institutions that have priced many students out of the market. As a result, many students are turning to more affordable public institutions.  The University of California (UC) then becomes more selective because there aren’t enough seats at the UC, so many students who, in the past, might have opted for UC turn to the CSU. 

This is a great Opportunity for the CSU, with one of the lowest tuitions in the country (Strength).  It is also a Threat, as it becomes an embarrassment of riches. More and more people want what we offer, but we are not sufficiently funded (another Threat) to carry out our mission of offering access to every CSU qualified student.  

(As an aside, my campus admitted the same number of students as last year, but we had such a high yield – more and more students are choosing to accept our offer (good Opportunity) – that now we are way over our Full-Time Equivalent Student (FTES) target, and we will have to give back money (Threat, Yikes!).

Of course, we could provide more access by using technology (an Opportunity at San Marcos because we are quite state-of-the-art) to ease some of the on-campus bottlenecks.  This is also a Threat if technology implementation degrades the quality of our brand (that which makes us attractive) and turns away students.  Had we looked sooner at an internal Strength within the CSU system (more than 13,000 online or hybrid courses) we could have more deliberately and carefully deployed these internal assets to meet the changing demands and opportunities of the marketplace.

As more and more students turn toward the CSU, we become BIG – which is a Strength that might help us overcome two of our biggest Threats, legislative intrusion and limited budgets.  Assuming that 90% of our students are of legal age or resident status in California, that’s more than 350,000 taxpaying voters who can influence the legislature (not to mention the millions of alumni).  Thus, the question would be “how do we mobilize the people who know the quality of our education best to work in their own self-interest?”   Certainly, that’s a Strength that may create an Opportunity (I particularly love this idea because it did not come out of our meeting or from me, but was suggested by a STUDENT in my class!).  Of course, along with BIGNESS come bureaucracy and inertia (Do I really need to provide examples?) that make us less nimble in our ability to appropriately respond to the changing environment (BIG Weakness).


We begin to see how threats and opportunities are interconnected in interesting ways that, when looked at through the lens of our strengths and weaknesses, suggest strategies to cope with the changing environment.

Finally, A Note

As my students and I were looking over the original SWOT analysis chart, we came across some paradoxes.   We claim that the CSU needs to speak with a singular voice to tell our story to the public.  At the same time, we are still at odds with ourselves concerning whether we are a loose federation of independent, autonomous campuses or whether we are a system. 

How could we possibly expect to speak with one voice if, internally, we haven’t come to some common understanding of what the California State University is as a brand?  What, indeed, is our simple, common, broad, shared mission?  What problem does the CSU solve?  For whom do we solve it? 

This mission has to be clear and concise across campuses for our marketing communications to work to tell our stories and to affect public opinion to the extent that the legislature will respond because of the demands of the taxpaying public. 

By the same token, no one would disagree that each of our campuses is unique and, in its own community, the local state school. To get the resources we need from the state and from the public, we rely on our CSU brand – that which is common and binds us together.  With a BIG group of constituents advocating for and communicating to a larger public, a united front around a common mission might be the best way to secure state, public, and, dare I say it, private support.

Then, we can work on internal communications among ourselves to decide how each campus, in its unique way, delivers on the promise that the institution makes to its target audience.  Of course, I could write a lot more about internal marketing and communications, but I think you’ve got the idea.

Chair's note:  Link to SWOT analysis by Moody’s on CSU’s Lease Revenue Bonds, September 20, 2013.