Competition for students in higher education is fierce. The current "one-size-fits-all" rankings regime creates a winner take all environment where institutions are rewarded for investing in areas which have little effect in actual student outcomes. Colleges are interested in optimizing their brand, not optimizing education. The rankings arms race occurs at every stratum of higher education, with each institution trying to beat out it's nearest peers.
Competition is good, however not all competition is productive. The Kardashian women (Bruce included now I guess) can compete for the title of "Most Ridiculous", but baring some level of cheap entertainment value for some, it's quite pointless. Higher education must be more about much more than it's entertainment value. Students need educations, not vacations.
The Market Will Correct Itself
Getting an artificial bump in the rankings may seem like a successful marketing strategy in the short term, but if you're not focusing on students, this will bring you nowhere fast. Any institution currently investing significant amounts of money to compete on shallow factors will soon find themselves with a cost structure that makes it difficult for them to compete as the consumers of higher education become more informed.
As much as it appears as though the market is demanding some of these extraneous services, consumer preferences are fickle, and change is inevitable. There is no other product in world that costs so much and yet promises such poor outcomes for so many. A perfect storm for higher education is brewing driven by skyrocketing costs and debt loads, stagnant wages, and rapid technological change in education. No government subsidy will be powerful enough to counter-act the potent combination of these factors.
The Unfortunate Fallout
The unfortunate side effect of any market correction will likely be more school closures. The sentimental part of me laments this as I feel that any institution of higher learning closing its door is a shame and a loss. It's similar to the reservation I have when considering the possibility of throwing away a book (I just don't do it), even though I now have copies of it in several digital formats in my pocket.
That said, some institutions will close their doors, and that will likely be a good thing in the long run as more resources can be focused on the institutions providing the most value to their students. The remaining question will be "How long does it take for that long run to get here?" and "Which institutions will still be thriving when it does?".
The top 100 institutions will likely easily survive on a combination of endowments, brand power and the fact that there will always be some segment of the market willing to pay anything for such luxury goods. However, the vast majority of Americans are not educated by such institutions, and this 90% of students will no longer be content to pay luxury prices for a return on education that is not equivalent to those prices.
The Formula for Success
The institutions that thrive through this disruption will be those that had the foresight to focus their energies on providing the best education their student's money can buy. Those that focused else where will quickly find that the rules of the game have changed and they can no longer compete.
For those leaders that do subscribe to this line of thinking, we offer the following tips for succeeding in this new environment.
1. Identify your institutions core strengths and your corresponding best fit students.
Attempting to be all things to all students is a recipe for failure. Delivering great outcomes requires focus. The first step to accomplishing this requires the right tools and information to identify the competitive advantages that will allow your institution to carve out a niche for itself in which you are the best in the world at serving a particular segment of student.
With technology increasing enabling schools to more easily deliver their content to more and more students, being a "me-too" institution isn't going to cut it.
2. Differentiate yourselves through branding around those core strengths.
Identifying your strengths and your best fit students is only part of the battle. To be successful you need to be able to effectively communicate those strengths in a meaningful way. This communication must cut through the information overload that most students are subject to. If successful, your best fit students will naturally identify with your institution and come to you in greater quantities because they know you are providing the education they are seeking.
3. Focus on finding, enrolling and graduating your best fit students.
Unfortunately, as any leader knows, a "build it and they will come" strategy is not enough. You need to be able to pro-actively identify your best fit students, connect with them and ultimately convince each of them that you are the best fit for them. The narrower the niche, the more important this becomes.
Recruitment strategies that rely on buying undifferentiated leads in bulk and mass mailing with impersonal communications will not be effective here. Fortunately, there are new solutions out there that can match students at a very deep level and help you to pinpoint those "needles in the haystack".
Where Does That Leave You?
We are concerned with the future of higher education, and envision a world where smarter consumers are able to make better decisions because they have better access to information. Colleges and Universities can focus on areas of strength and work to attract students who will thrive at their institutions, graduating to become successful and committed alumni.
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