The Three R’s for Post-pandemic Success in Higher Education

Relevance builds Relationships build Revenue

You may remember the Three R’s as Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic. These subjects formed the core of early education for many years. I’d like to introduce three R’s that will help you navigate your marketing efforts for years to come. In order to achieve your goals—to make your higher education institution sustainable even through calamities—you need to offer relevance in order to build relationships with people who will generate revenue for you.

While I firmly believe that seeking relevance is (or should be) your highest priority, I’m going to start this post by discussing revenue because it’s the topic that keeps you up at night. We’ll work backwards from there to make a point.

Generating revenue rightfully weighs heavily on your shoulders. These questions likely swim in your mind nearly constantly: How can we attract students to increase our enrollment (which translates to tuition)? How do we retain students to keep room and board revenues or auxiliary services profitable? How shall we motivate alumni and donors to increase their giving? And how will we convince legislators to approve budgets that generously support us?

You have already figured out that tuition and gift income doesn’t just fall out of the sky into your bursar’s vaults. Some transaction must occur. You have to deliver (or agree to deliver) something and your student/parent/donor has to agree to pay for it. And transactions require people (automated deposits, ATMs and related technologies notwithstanding; those still require human initiation). Generally, complete strangers do not fork over funds to you. With rare exception, you know a prospective student or her parents quite well before they agree to pay you a handsome sum. Likewise, you have significant familiarity with an alumnus or donor before they determine to make a gift to your institution. I would go as far as to say that most of the time it is because of your familiarity that you earn that check.

Almost universally, colleges and universities do not make products and sell them (Berea notwithstanding). Rather, your livelihood as an institution depends on your meaningful exchanges with a wide array of audiences—and individual constituents—every day. These exchanges are your tools to build relationships that, in turn, build sufficient trust that leads to transactions that build revenue. You won’t have revenue without these important relationships.

But in the same way that money doesn’t fall from the sky, neither do relationships. You need to initiate and nurture relationships by bringing relevance to each exchange. Your ability to offer something of value in exchange for a tuition or gift check will determine how much revenue you will generate to sustain your institution and programs. If you are not offering relevant value, you will not be able to maintain relationships. Parents won’t write you a check unless you can deliver relevance for their children. Alumni won’t write you annual fund checks without your demonstrating how the experience you offer continues to have a positive effect for students and the world. Taking this one step farther, you won’t know whether you are being relevant unless you ask. Relevance isn’t something you hope you deliver; it’s something you decide to deliver.
In other words, you must deliver relevance that delivers relationships that deliver revenue. This is a simple formula for your success. You may find it a bit more challenging to deliver. You may think you can simply repeat what you’ve been doing, but relevance requires that you constantly assess your value creation. Begin by asking questions of those with whom you wish to have meaningful relationships: current students, faculty, prospects, parents, neighbors, donors, alumni, legislators—anyone who will influence your ability to generate revenue. Establish a regular calendar and criteria for your research since you will want to continually measure and learn about the degree to which you are relevant to your audiences. RHB recommends answering three essential questions to help you gain confidence in this area. What is true about us? What do we say is true about us? What do others say is true about us? The points where the answers to these three questions intersect will give clarity to your messaging and marketing and provide the confidence to tell your story boldly.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.