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Prospective students have options. Lots and lots of options. There are more than 5,000 colleges and universities offering a staggering number of majors, minors and degree types.

Yet, despite this bounty of choices, playing around with the U.S. News & World Report College Compare tool reveals something that higher ed marketers wrestle with every day: a lot of colleges and universities offer pretty much the same thing. There are differences in the details—rankings, size, location, majors, curriculum, schedules, student-to-faculty ratios, facilities, endowments, and a slew of others. While valuable, a focus on details misses the most important question that needs to be answered for an institution to thrive: Why?

In an exceptional talk nearly 10 years ago, author Simon Sinek pointed to something great, inspired leaders and organizations understand. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

This perspective is desperately needed in higher education. Marketing the number of majors offered, National Academy members on the faculty, new and modern facilities, average starting salaries and placement rates of graduates will only take an institution so far. To truly differentiate, schools need to articulate why they do what they do and de-emphasize what they do.

Finding the Why

Answering why you do what you do is a meaningful unifying effort. The best strategy is to listen carefully. Faculty are often the most adept at articulating why they do what they do. Most are passionate, dedicated, and deeply driven to improving the lives of students in ways that aren’t confined to singular outcomes—like getting a higher paying job. Alumni, too, can offer profound reflections on how an institution has helped shape their lives in compelling ways that have nothing to do with the list of features institutions champion or even the salaries alums enjoy. And students, in the midst of the experience, can share what about it they find most valuable, rewarding and promising. This is where you’ll find the why—the deeply rooted goals, values and possibilities that have, and will continue to, inspire.

Measuring Why Matters

Introduced in 2014, the Gallup-Purdue Index, a study of college graduates, found that the type of college a student attended “hardly matters at all” in a graduate’s workplace engagement and current well-being. The study is aimed at assessing meaningful outcomes that offer a great examples of why institutions do what they do—things like graduates “thriving in all aspects of their well-being.” The questions used in the study can provide an excellent framework for institutions to evaluate their effectiveness in the things that truly matter and speak directly to the why. Beloit College, for example, has anchored its marketing efforts in this idea, using student experience metrics to establish strategic priorities and drive brand development.

Integrating the Why

Understanding, internalizing and articulating the why is the foundation of a solid integrated marketing strategy. It gives clarity to the values, goals and principles that define a brand and influence experiences across every conceivable communication, behavior, activity and operation of the institution.

Everything an institution does should be approached through the lens why you do what you do. Let funding priorities, organizational structures, curriculum development, capital projects, programs, customer service initiatives, events, signage, collateral, partnerships, campus visits, etc. demonstrate how you do what you do, while never losing sight of why you do it.

Tim Jones in the Chief Communications and Integrated Marketing Officer at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

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