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Differentiate or die. Dominate the competition. Finding ways to rise above competitors. Take market share. Improve profit margins. This is what motivates many marketer: they are desperate to shine in a sea of sameness.

It makes sense. Because people have a nearly endless number of choices in just about every product or service category, individual brands must stand out or risk being rendered irrelevant. That’s true — to some degree, at least.

Even in higher education — the noble endeavor of educating people and providing an opportunity for richer, more fulfilling lives — engenders intense competition among the nearly 5,000 American institutions. Often -aggressive spending on advertising, new facilities, and piling up endless amenities fuels the “go here, not there” approach to higher education marketing and tactics. For some, this strategy works fine. For others, it’s time for a change.

Higher education needs to shift toward collaboration before competition. Why?

1) For the Industry

There are millions of students enrolled in college, representing a majority of high school graduates (69.7% of 2016 high school graduates). It’s a decent sized pool, but it could be larger. It should be larger. Institutions need to ensure that percentage goes up instead of down, or flat. Promoting access, opportunity, and the enormous benefit of a college education can’t be the sole responsibility of consortiums and councils. All institutions — big and small, public and private, four year and two-year — need to work together to promote the industry, not just themselves.

2) For the Category

A large majority of students attend public, 4-year institutions, with far fewer students choosing to attend small, private colleges. This reality creates an intense battleground for private schools, fighting for a limited pool of students. A smarter strategy — and one that benefits more institutions and more students — is to work collectively to increase the percentage of students who choose private colleges. Again, this can’t be left entirely to the councils and organizations designated to promote independent colleges. Institutions must work together to promote and advance the unique, compelling benefits of small private colleges. Liberal arts colleges must work to generate interest and demand for the category as a whole, not just in their individual schools. More students seeking liberal arts education improves the scenario for everyone in the category, in turn engendering healthy competition focused on improving the quality and uniqueness of education at each school — a direct and distinct benefit for students.

3) For the Brand

The advantage of an exceptional amount of choice is that prospective students can find exactly the right institution that offers exactly the right kind of education that will propel them toward the lives they want. College is not one-size-fits-all, and it shouldn’t be marketed — or priced — as though it is. Admittedly, there are a lot of similarities throughout the industry. But somewhere, beneath the basic requirements of a higher education institution and decades of efforts to keep up with the big brands, every institution is unique. Unearthing that mix and bringing it to life in ways that inspire interest, create demand, and lead to success in an ever-changing marketplace is enormously complex. Sharing ideas, strategies, research, tactics, successes and failures makes it easier for competitors to differentiate from one another and to find the right students — those who will go on to thrive at the institution, confident they made the right decision.

Although the challenging environment of higher education has begun to inspire more cutthroat competition, it’s still an industry that, at its core, is focused on the right things. It's still noble. It’s still an industry devoted to improving individual lives and society at large. This fundamental mission demands we work together to achieve our goals — and to ensure that education avoids becoming a basic commodity.

“In the long history of humankind those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” - Charles Darwin

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