What is Cost Per Inquiry (CPI) in Higher Ed Marketing?

January 5th, 2024 by Paula Keller French

What is CPI?

Key Insights

  • Cost per inquiry is the most important metric to measure and drive the efficiency of campaigns.
  • Cost per inquiry is most frequently tracked as a KPI for digital marketing channels (i.e., CPI from paid search or CPI from organic), and it can also measure the effectiveness of digital marketing spend across all platforms.
  • Search Influence and UPCEA’s latest project will create a reliable industry benchmark for cost per inquiry and cost per enrolled student in online and continuing education.

Cost per inquiry (CPI) is the definitive KPI for higher education marketers to track the success of their advertising campaigns or costs.

Cost per inquiry is a compass that guides your higher education marketing endeavors. It empowers you to gauge your efficiency, optimize your budgets, and make data-driven decisions.

As the education sector evolves and marketing programs (especially to adult learners) become more complex, understanding and harnessing the power of CPI is essential for staying competitive and achieving your institution’s marketing goals.

For far too long, higher education digital advertising professionals haven’t had a benchmark for this critical metric, and certainly not one specific to online and professional education.

Search Influence and our higher education partners at UPCEA are working to create a cost per inquiry benchmark that will enable higher ed marketers to reliably compare their cost per inquiry with that of their peers.

In this blog post, we’ll take an in-depth look at cost per inquiry in marketing, why higher ed marketers need to measure it, and the Search Influence x UPCEA cost per inquiry study.

What is Cost Per Inquiry in Higher Education Marketing? How Do You Calculate Cost Per Inquiry?

Cost per inquiry is a fundamental metric that plays a pivotal role in higher education marketing. CPI measures the financial investment required to generate a single inquiry or lead.

CPI = Cost / Inquiry


In the context of higher education digital marketing, an “inquiry” refers to a prospective student expressing interest in your institution’s programs, courses, or services. This expression of interest could manifest as filling out a contact form, requesting a brochure, or making direct inquiries via email or phone.

The “cost” in the calculation depends on what marketing campaigns you are trying to measure, your marketing mix, and tracking technology (for example — are you able to track an inquiry back to the source?).

Cost per inquiry is most frequently tracked as a KPI for:

  • Digital marketing channels (i.e., CPI from paid search or CPI from organic)
  • Digital marketing spend across all platforms

Some may look at it:

  • CPI per program
  • Organic CPI (leads from organic search visitors)
  • Overall CPI across all marketing expenses

Different ways to calculate CPI in marketing
Cost Per Inquiry Worksheet for Higher Education Websites

In our CPI worksheet, we provide two foundational calculations to help you get started:

  • Digital Advertising Media Spend ÷ # of Inquiries Attributed to Digital Advertising = Digital Advertising Cost Per Inquiry
  • Marketing Expenses ÷ Total Inquiries (All Sources) = Overall Cost Per Inquiry

This industry-standard cost per inquiry calculation will create an “apples-to-apples” comparison, helping institutions like yours know the real cost and payoff of your marketing efforts.

Why Measure Cost Per Inquiry in Higher Education Marketing?

SI CPI Budgeting

The significance of measuring CPI cannot be understated for advertisers.

CPI is THE most important metric for marketing campaign efficiency.

Once you know your CPI, you can begin to optimize your efficiency!

When you consistently measure cost per inquiry in your higher ed marketing campaigns, you can:

  • Have confidence that you’re driving an appropriate amount of inquiries and yielding the desired results
  • Evaluate your outcomes against broader industry standards
  • Project your marketing results and how quickly you can generate necessary inquiries
  • Judge if the promises from third-party vendors are realistic

All of these factors lead back to why we’re so invested in this online and continuing education benchmark study.

Why Search Influence and UPCEA Are Creating a CPI Benchmark

Search Influence and UPCEA are embarking on a project to establish a trusted PCO industry benchmark for cost per inquiry and cost per enrolled student. This insightful data will help to create a higher-ed CPI standard, thus helping the industry as a whole.

Our goal for this cost per inquiry advertising project is to encourage universities to measure CPI and be cognizant of what’s included in the advertising costs metric.

To establish this higher ed cost per inquiry benchmark, Search Influence and UPCEA created a survey to collect data from industry leaders on the subject. This survey is part of our multi-year goal to create a shift among PCO marketers to look at these costs in the same light.

If we can share how schools measure cost per inquiry today and encourage more marketing teams to track it, when UPCEA reruns the survey in the future, the data will be even richer and more informed.

That way, as we move forward, we’ll have even more reliable metrics.

Learn More About CPI in Higher Education Marketing

What is CPI?

Search Influence and UPCEA are committed to elevating strategy standards in higher education marketing.

We believe creating an industry-wide benchmark for measuring cost per inquiry will lead to more efficient ad spend.

And, in a world where 23% of the $88 billion spent annually by marketers on digital and programmatic advertising goes to waste, this pivot to efficiency is much needed.

Ready to learn more about the future of CPI in higher ed marketing?

Tune in to our webinar “The Power of CPI to Measure Higher Ed Marketing Success” and download our CPI worksheet to get started.


Image Sources:

Image 1: Unsplash

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