Differentiation Is Hard. But Necessary.

Differentiating a university is hard. Does your institution have the vision and courage to do it?

August 18, 2015

If you believed that American colleges and universities are differentiated, I have some bad news. Last week, two Gallup researchers posted about a recent study that concluded:

… Gallup found that the mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status.

I’ll add that it isn’t a surprise to anyone who works in marketing that colleges and universities look and sound more alike than different. And please note: I’m referring to real differentiation — not a tagline or visual identity.

What are other examples of institutions that are clearly differentiated? Here are some that occurred to me immediately:

  • Goucher College: One of the first institutions to require every student to have an international experience.
  • Harvey Mudd College: Harvey Mudd “seeks to educate engineers, scientists, and mathematicians well versed in all of these areas and in the humanities and the social sciences so that they may assume leadership in their fields with a clear understanding of the impact of their work on society.”
  • Northeastern University: Other institutions have coop programs, but not on the scale of Northeastern.
  • Southern New Hampshire University: Developing competency-based education and online programs have required focus from its leaders, who took a big risk by investing in staff and tools that help to monitor the performance of online learners.

Differentiation requires focus. It takes vision and discipline. You need the courage to say no to attractive opportunities and appealing ideas. You must be willing to take risks, knowing as you do that some initiatives won’t work out and you need to be prepared for the consequences. You’ll have to assess whether or not something is working and if it isn’t, change it or even put an end to it.

As I’ve learned at mStoner, this is difficult enough for a business, but it’s much harder for a college or university.

Why? To differentiate in higher ed, you have to think outside your category and possibly stop doing what other institutions are doing. For example: should you drop football to support a new academic program? How will that affect your competitiveness with prospective students — and your fundraising?

Differentiation requires soul-searching. What is truly different about your institution and your programming? What distinctive academic or research assets should you emphasize and develop? What should you stop doing so you can invest elsewhere?

Focus requires leaders who are willing to ask difficult questions like these and constituents who are willing to help to answer them. It also requires sustained attention to making sure that new, differentiating initiatives are enculturated into the extended community. This requires courage, hard work, and the willingness to engage, especially with those who disagree vehemently with a chosen direction.

A clear mission statement is a real asset for an institution that wants to differentiate itself. It provides clear guidance about what to support.

For a university, developing a program around poetry and film could be a worthwhile endeavor if you’re an institution like NYU, which has both great poets on its faculty and a strong filmmaking program. But it’s easy for the leaders at Babson to say no. The college’s mission statement makes clear why: “Babson College educates entrepreneurial leaders who create great economic and social value—everywhere.”

Aside from the ones I’ve listed, what are other examples of institutions that are clearly differentiated from their competitors?


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