Published on 2014/05/16

Six Differentiators Institutions Use to Attract Students

Six Differentiators Institutions Use to Attract Students
As the higher education marketplace becomes increasingly commoditized, institutions need to look beyond academic offerings to differentiate themselves from competitors.
There are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, each one a potential competitor for your institution. With decreasing enrollments on the horizon, postsecondary institutions are finding differentiation a necessity to stay visible and relevant, as well as solvent. Those who create and maintain a distinctive identity can attract new students.

But how does your institution accomplish that? While there are many marketing options, the one that perhaps has the most impact and farthest reach is the college website. Here is where you can “brand” your institution, talk about different degrees and services offered and answer common questions asked by your potential customers.

Using that venue, many colleges are highlighting very different institutional characteristics to set them apart from others, in some of the following areas.

1. Cost

The media has been rife with stories of excessive student debt. For that reason, potential students are now paying attention to the financial bottom line. Some institutions are distinguishing themselves as non-profit versus for-profit, or public versus private, in order to encourage customers to be more financially savvy. Competitive tuition pricing, application fee waivers and generous financial aid packages including scholarships and grants are often highlighted to attract students.

2. Course Delivery Options

Classes are offered on campus, online, on the weekends, in an accelerated format and in many other timeframes and venues. Flexible transfer policies and credit for prior work experience are touted as unique to their own institution.

3. Campus Characteristics and Amenities

Emphasizing the campus environment is nothing new — this kind of recruiting has been done since the middle of the 20th century. Large institutions promote their wide choice of majors, enhanced research opportunities and greater student diversity. Small campuses hawk their particular academic focus, intimate class sizes, increased opportunities for interaction with faculty and personal attention. Ivy League and other prestigious institutions stress their rigorous admissions standards and selectivity or their historical reputation. Still others underscore the community or neighborhood in which the institution is located. Pictures of shiny new facilities, luxurious dormitories and students engaged in every conceivable extracurricular activity abound on college websites.

4. Targeted Students

Many institutions indicate that they serve very distinctive populations — military service personnel, people who work in public service or non-profit occupations, working adults or first-generation college attenders, to name a few. Women’s and Historical Black Colleges and universities are also still robust here in the United States.

5. Career Opportunities

Some postsecondary institutions highlight career opportunities upon graduation and advertise impressive employer partnerships. Internships, international study abroad and the ability to gain real-world employability skills are endorsed.

6. Trademark Programs

Nearly every college or university has one or more specialized, unique, “signature” majors and works to attract students to those degrees.


With the intense competition out there, colleges have discovered they must have some strong academic niche or other type of distinctive identity that makes them stand out in the crowd, for the purpose of attracting prospective scholars.

Institutions are now strategically choosing what to present, emphasize and exclude. They are becoming more direct in terms of what they offer and who they want as students. In fact, the best branding efforts are not intended to appeal to 100 percent of the masses. Rather, they are targeted at the students who are interested in their specific product/degree and therefore more likely to excel and persist to degree completion.

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Readers Comments

Curtis Keller 2014/05/16 at 11:24 am

Good points. The institutions that are succeeding in differentiation are most likely to have several of these factors. The one I see becoming the most important in several years’ time is serving targeted students. Many students today are finding that traditional higher ed institutions don’t serve their needs. As they demand more, and as private providers start to address their demands, traditional institutions will have to shift their practices as well.

Mike H 2014/05/17 at 10:17 pm

I’m not convinced campus amenities are still a draw for students. Perhaps if the majority of university entrants today were traditional-aged students looking for the full “campus experience” (dorms, sororities and frats and so on), but certainly not for our growing group of adult and non-traditional students who don’t spend a lot of time on campus anyway.

Other than that, I agree with your other factors.

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