Institutional Survival Tips: Step Up. Think Different. Be Special.

Few of the nation’s campus communities are not talking about their threatened futures. Decision makers are well-advised to understand the forces of “creative destruction” and “disruptive innovation” as they play out in the new business enterprise that is higher education in America.

October 11, 2018

It’s no coincidence that in many states across our country, colleges and universities aren’t located much more than 45 miles apart. In some cases, they’re even closer. That’s because back in the heyday of college pioneering, many schools’ primary service areas were intensely local.

Of course, schools with programmatic distinctions like denominational affiliations and highly specialized academic offerings cast a wider recruitment net. But the fact remains that our nation’s higher education landscape was planted during a time when our world was an entirely different place than it is today.

Today, trustees, administrators and faculty scratch their heads in what’s increasingly feeling like a futile game of differentiating for the sake of survival. From the vantage point of someone who works with multiple higher ed clients who are addressing eerily similar challenges, it is at the same time remarkable and disheartening to witness informed, bold and innovative thinking stagnate at the hands of cultural, political and leadership gridlock.

“We just need to get the word out,” is the battle cry of more campus communities than you’d be comfortable to know. Yes, institutional visibility is absolutely essential. And unless you’re at a flagship or land grant university, I’m guessing your school’s conspicuousness even in your primary recruitment market is likely much lower than you think it is (nothing a little market research couldn’t easily bring to light).

But getting the word out about something your target audiences don’t consider to be special isn’t worth the time, talent and treasure required. It’s fine to be different, but only if the difference is perceived as important and special to prospective stakeholders.

In his recent Academic Impressions essay, “Creative Destruction: The New Economic Reality in Higher Education,” Dr. Marcel J. Dumestre suggests, “Institutional survival requires strategic thinking as opposed to simply determining how to compete in the marketplace.”

He paints the portrait of a nation—and a market—poised to consume a collection of higher education programs, products and services that just a few schools (most notably Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University) are already pioneering. And he warns that colleges and universities who are trenching more deeply into the traditional models they believe have served them well are on thinner ice than they realize.

As schools purge and merge in greater numbers every year, the monumental question facing higher education right now is a poignant one: What new models will successfully replace the antiquated ones?

Dumestre’s case is supported by the counsel of brand strategist Patrick Weas who advises consumer and higher education clients, “People don’t buy different. They buy special.”

The ideation and implementation of new business, program and pricing models that are being discussed on nearly every campus I know offers a pivotal opportunity for professional marketers to step up and participate in the strategic lives of their colleges and universities like never before. After all, a decision can hardly be “strategic” unless prevailing market forces are fully considered.

So if your campus community is engaged in formal (or casual) dialogue about the future of your school’s program, staffing, facility or pricing models, exercise your expertise and bring market insights to the table. Without question, you and your team members are in the best position to help your campus colleagues understand and appreciate what your school’s most important audiences prize as “special” about your brand experience.

Eric Sickler has helped the nation's college and universities clarify and more fully engage their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.​


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