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Seven Steps to Finding Your Sweet Spot in the New Era of Higher Education

Seven Steps to Finding Your Sweet Spot in the New Era of Higher Education
In a commoditized marketplace, higher education institutions that take the time to plan strategically are more likely to succeed.

The higher education market is in transition, leading some to speculate what schools offer will very soon become commodity products. “Why pay for something you can get for free?” they ask, or “What’s the real value of a college degree, anyway?”

While I think the reports of higher education’s impending demise have been greatly exaggerated overall, this fate won’t be an exaggeration for some individual institutions — and probably a large number of them.

Before we lament the future being different from the past, there are three factors to keep in mind. First, the future looks quite bright as technology and human endeavor will make educational content available to more people throughout their lifetime. Second, there is still a significant amount of combined value in a commodity market. While some definitions of commodity aren’t very appealing (e.g. “a mass-produced unspecialized product”), others are, including, “something useful or valuable.”[1] Third, and perhaps most importantly for colleges and universities, education is an “experience good,” meaning its true value can only be known upon consumption. So the experience of learning will be different, not only by online versus on-campus delivery modes, but by the institution providing the content and experience.

With these factors in mind, the institutions that succeed in this new era of higher education are more likely to be those that:

1. Think Strategically

According to Michael Porter, strategy is not about doing things better than the competition, but rather doing things differently.[2] The goal is to change the nature of competition away from costly head-to-head battles over existing markets and clientele to creating something unique and valuable in the marketplace, then aligning processes behind this offering and changing the rules of the game. The for-profit segment did this many years ago by offering career-focused education at convenient times and locations (and online) to working adults. Schools offering competency-based programs may be the next wave and the ways these schools create programs, configure operations, market their offerings and serve their clientele are often quite different than traditional colleges and universities and many of the for-profits. How are you different from your competition and how and why is this valuable to a certain market segment? How can you document/prove this difference and value?

2. Practice “Big M” Marketing

Most people think of marketing as an outwardly-facing function focused on creating a positive image for the organization. This is true, but a very small part of the story. Strategic marketing, “big M” marketing, includes a clear idea of what business you are in and who you are trying to serve, what prospective students and employers value, what people (including those internal to the university) believe about the capabilities of your institution and how these capabilities can be aligned to satisfy evolving needs. What business are you in and how do the institution’s capabilities fit together to serve your clientele?

When answering this question, you need to be specific and try to stay away from words like ‘excellence’ and other high-priced words so many other schools use, that have little meaning in the marketplace (unless you have a very specific way of defining and delivering on them).

3. Draw Boundaries

The market for higher education is in flux and schools with a Staples strategy (“Yeah, we’ve got that”) will find it increasingly difficult to succeed. The acid test of strategy is being able to articulate what you won’t do and which clientele you won’t serve[3] — so draw the boundaries carefully and be clear, both internally and externally, about what the institution stands for and who it is you serve. ‘Mission creep’ can unravel the most carefully planned strategy. Can you articulate what types of programs and services your institution will or will not offer? Can you articulate what segments of clientele you will not serve?

4. Look Inside and Backward to Project Forward

Rather than a relentless focus on what competitors and “the market” are doing, look internally first. History can be quite informative and institutional culture is created by founders, influential leaders and early successes. Your history is unique in the world of higher education, so use the past to inform and build (and market) your future. Who founded your institution? For what purpose? What made the institution successful in the early years? How did it face challenges?

5. Gather Data

One of the most common mistakes in strategy initiatives is skipping the research phase. However, devoting the time and effort to this phase upfront saves time, effort, money and heartache further down the road. From an internal standpoint, look at the hard data on admissions, enrollments and graduation trends, faculty hiring and promotion, research funding, individual and corporate giving and student satisfaction. Externally, conduct research on market perceptions: how current and potential clientele (e.g. students, alumni, companies) perceive your school and its offerings and needs. What data do you have that can be mined for insight? What external data would help inform the strategy?

6. Discuss the Big Picture

If you think of each of the pieces of information gathered above as mosaic tiles, what does the picture look like when they are all put together? Each person may interpret the facts differently based on their position and length of service with the institution — and some of these differences may be very important in helping to understand the data. What interesting trends come to light? What surprises people? What assumptions no longer hold? What threats appear more prominent now? What opportunities might be attractive and fit with the school’s strengths?

7. Plan, Pilot, Learn and Grow

It’s an evolving market and there will be missteps and outright failures. As most entrepreneurs know, some failure is inevitably part of the process of success. So, experiment to get it right and celebrate both success and failure, and what can be learned from each.

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[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Commodity,” 2013, accessed at

[2] Michael E. Porter, “What is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review, November-December 1996.


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