Published on 2012/06/19

When setting out to determine what type of programming an institution should offer, administrators should have a clear idea of their market desires as well as local competition. Photo by Graeme.

There is a rule in business for crafting your Unique Selling Proposition that says you really only have three choices. Do you want to be the biggest? The best? Or the first?

In education, we like to distance ourselves from a business model, but the reality is that we are a service purchased by a consumer—and when searching for a product, prospective students take note of these traits.

Some students want to enroll in the newest programs, particularly in technology, because of the potential for growth and novelty. Being known for offering the hottest topics will draw these types of students towards your college time and time again for the latest class.

Other students prefer the time-tested reliability of established and commended programs that appear on the top of lists like, “Best Colleges and Universities for ____.” Regardless of how competent or cost-saving you design your course, if you are in competition with one of these schools, admissions may suffer.

And yet other learners are searching for variety, a one-stop shop for all their interests, hoping a large institution can satisfy their curiosities.

Deciding where you fit in this schema will depend largely on your local environment, who you currently serve, and who you compete with for enrollments. When you are the only game in town, variety might be the answer. But if your local economy is heavy in one sector, it only makes sense to focus on select quality programs in that industry because, as a rule, bigger is rarely better.

Working for one of the largest community colleges in the world, expansiveness is certainly a given. However, each individual region has its own unique community. In some areas, we are the only provider of specific programs, but our largest metropolitan campus is in competition with countless for-profit colleges, consulting firms, and other universities. In these circumstances, trying to be everything to everyone is counterproductive and ultimately would diminish the quality of our programming.

The only way to build the best possible outcomes is to develop a clear vision that fits your purpose, even if this means reworking your mission and vision statements. Maybe your institute began with the goal to provide “quality education at an affordable price” but your current faculty and local market would benefit more from fresh, trending programming or industry-specific training opportunities.

Recreating your vision statement should not be attempted without a reliable market research report, detailing your current position as an education provider in relation to local high-demand workforce industries and competition. Seeking out new avenues for continuing education through local chapters of national professional societies can also expand the depth of your programs. Just be wary of assuming there is a need, let the data drive your decisions.

If these business concepts make you uncomfortable, understand it is a case of semantics: programs are products, students are clients, and marketing is a part of communications. All colleges have a mission and vision and reconstructing yours to fit your local economy can only expand the good works you already serve.

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Readers Comments

Quincy Bauer 2012/06/19 at 9:48 am

“programs are products, students are clients, and marketing is a part of communications. All colleges have a mission and vision and reconstructing yours to fit your local economy can only expand the good works you already serve.”

This should be at the front of every single HE administrator’s mind as they enter into the program review cycle.

Emily Cross 2012/06/19 at 4:04 pm

I find it so interesting that name recognition can out-weigh quality when it comes to programming.

How can an institution compete on those terms? I would say, at that point, that the institution should try to establish links with related associations and employers in order to insert themselves into the process and allowing potential students to avoid the searching process

WA Anderson 2012/06/25 at 9:41 pm

There was an article a little while ago about building advisory boards to help institutions ensure that their programming was fitting local needs. Is this a strategy you have taken as well?

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