Niching in Higher Education: Moving the Needle Towards Simple NichesJohn Kokolus | Founding Dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies (Retired), Elizabethtown College
Buzzwords are words with seemingly well-defined and impervious boundaries that, in truth, are deliberately constructed to be broken. One of the buzzwords currently floating around in higher education is “niche.” The word has its own specific meaning, but takes on a variety of connotative meanings when used in the context of higher education. This linguistic imprecision satisfies our need to communicate with others about complicated, complex and often contradictory things. Using buzzwords like niche are part of the dynamic process of language growth.
It’s critical for institutions to find their niche and to determine whether they will pursue a mass niche or a simple niche. However, it’s critical to first determine what we mean when we say this buzzword.
The mass niche principle standardize policies, practices and students in a way that promotes efficiency, productivity and profitability. The simple niche principle promotes customization (programmatic, curricular, financial, etc.).
We’ve seen the simple niche principle applied in some really interesting ways to different parts of the institution through customization of email advising, online information sessions, alumni meetings, online course registration and the like. The mass niche principle, in contrast, risks losing the advantages of modern-market-demanded customization because the base assumption of mass niching is that all individual items, when grouped together, are the same. The rapid growth of knowledge and technology may cover this error in mass niching for a time, which can lead small institutions to reap some of the benefits of having a simpler, more customizable niche principle in place. But it will not take long for these to fade away or at least be minimized by an adherence to mass niching.
Many have called for the application of the simple niche principle to the structure, operation and behavior of adult education programs. It can be applied to academics (stackable, chunked or self-directed programs, for example), or finances (separate, discrete budgets with clear money metrics). From my consulting work, I am astonished as how many adult education programs do not know how much income they are generating nor the amount of expenses they are incurring. It can also be applied to curricula (unbundled from faculty, rely on experts) and to faculty and student services. Many observers have pointed out the financial savings promised by the application of the simple niche principle and these advantages are especially relevant for smaller colleges and universities.
Most small colleges and universities share some mixture of the simple niche principle and mass niche principle. However, as we’ve discussed, the mass niche principle simply won’t work over the long term for today’s institutions. If you want to move the needle towards the simple niche principle, this is how you can start:
Start where you are:
Inventory your current programs, policies and practices and identify those that already share some important characteristics of the simple niche principle. This will also provide content for the inevitable conversations you will have if you decide to move further up the scale.
If you look hard enough, you will find these examples right under your noses—like accelerated or intensified adult programs or summer school programs.
Niche customer markets are created while niche business markets are found
The creation of the niche customer markets requires a great deal of conscious intent.
Highlight your leadership in your niches
Highlight your institution’s excellent leadership in those areas you can find. Although you may not be offering completely online programs, you are probably using some form of distance learning (as support for classroom-based, etc.)
Don’t run from the knowledge explosion and technology but embrace them using what you can within your budget limits
Wherever you can, link the simple niche pattern’s results to healthier institutional finances:
This will carry many an argument, especially if your president is aware of it.
Unbundle, unbundle, unbundle!
Take roles, jobs and job descriptions apart. Isolate functions. Step back. Let new niches form. Be open to what you discover.
Take apart faculty functions. Who writes program and course outcomes? Does it have to be faculty?
Unbundle marketing functions.
Unbundle student services.
Build Your Team
This must make your list and it should be a top priority. Screen hires, including faculty, for those characteristics that show an understanding of and commitment to basic niche development. There are lots of different ways to conduct this type of screening. Spend the necessary time to do this. It will pay off in the end.
Good luck in finding your niche!
Author Perspective: Analyst