How to Differentiate Your School

In the monthly CEO Keys blog series, Keypath Education CEO Steve Fireng shares his thoughts and insights into the most prevalent topics in the higher education industry today.

Think about the last five university advertisements you’ve heard on the radio or seen on TV. How many times did you hear these claimed differentiators: “small class size,” “online courses to fit your schedule,” and “a sense of community”? Though schools continue to tout them as such, these are more table stakes and not true competitive advantages. 

We are in an increasingly crowded space, and pressure is mounting to set ourselves apart. At the end of September, Inside HigherEd hosted a webinar and released a report outlining opportunities for higher education institutions to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. I have included the ideas mentioned in the webinar and my perspective from partnering with institutions of all types. Weave these into your marketing and recruitment efforts so your message reflects what truly makes you different.

It is important to note that before you explore these options, make sure you take a minute to remember what you stand for. Do not let the pressure of competition force you to abandon your mission. The point is always to invest more in your program areas of strength.

Here are six ways to gain or identify a competitive edge and the most important matters to consider for each:

  1. Launch or grow popular academic programs. Following demand can lead to some wins, but of course, there are risks as well. High-demand programs are expensive to start as faculty are highly sought-after, expensive and can be hard to find. Another point is the market can quickly become saturated if everyone starts offering the same program. Look at the MBA for example. It is still possible to succeed in this saturated market, but it takes considerable effort and expertise. Some schools use concentrations in their MBA program. This allows them to offer a program in a very large market, but differentiate themselves with specializations. 

    Not everyone will be able to offer degrees in the health professions, information technology or criminal justice, to name a few of the most popular at the moment. Take a look at your strengths and what programs make sense for your institution.
  2. Offer new forms of credentials. With the birth of alternative modes of education, such as boot camps and other credentialing options, schools should look into new ways for students to learn and prove their skills. These don’t have to be huge undertakings. Just be sure you do not ignore the evolution of the way education is delivered. The point is that consumers are evaluating different ways to consume education, and degrees cannot be the only option.

    Another option is to offer a corporate partnership program, in which schools partner with organizations to connect their employees with educational opportunities that are right for them.
  3. Launch graduate programs if undergraduate ones are not meeting your goals. This is an easier, at least more streamlined, way to add programs where you already have a solid foundation. If you have not started offering online programs, you should look into that as well. This option is often ideal for graduate students who are juggling more and more in their daily lives.
     
  4. Offer a price advantage. As today’s students shop like consumers, we know they are price-conscious. With this this in mind, many institutions are offering discounts or regional rates that allow students from surrounding states to pay in-state tuition. This does have the potential to be a slippery slope, though, as schools compete and increase their discount rates to potentially unsustainable prices. You must be able to fit  this into your cost structure and have a strong feeling that you will be able to increase volume. 
     
  5. Look into partnership options. This is a particularly strong option if you lack the funds you need to gain a competitive edge. Enter into an online program management partnership, in which a third-party supplies the funds, expertise and resources necessary to launch and grow programs for a percentage of tuition.
     
  6. Leverage new technology to gain student insight for placement, identify at-risk students, improve retention and support career preparation initiatives. Technology can help you inform students to make better decisions and unveil the most needed support throughout their journey. Identifying obstacles to retention could be your biggest strategic advantage. Products such as Seelio show what students are learning and doing in their courses, aggregating their work throughout their college career and after graduation. Not only does this help with career development, but it also serves as a tool to showcase coursework and learning objectives to prospective students.

Too often, institutions are slow to make a change. Do not wait until it’s too late. As we navigate the current challenges facing higher education, it will be the institutions that know their position in the marketplace, identify their unique benefits and stay true to their mission that will succeed. People tend to think those in higher education are complacent and resistant to change. Let’s prove them wrong. 

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