Common Obstacles Higher Education Must Work Around

One of the benefits of consulting is the opportunity to see patterns among a cross section of the industry. Higher education shares common opportunities and obstacles across the spectrum of institutions: public/private; two-year/four-year; liberal arts/vocational; colleges/universities and the like. I heard Howard Gardner, the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, known for his ground-breaking identification of  ways of learning, speak at the recent CIC President’s Institute. After his team conducted more than 2000 qualitative interviews with students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, parents and trustees on ten different campuses across the country, one of their highlighted conclusions is that higher ed institutions are pretty much alike. The common experiences, perspectives, and challenges voiced across a spectrum of institutional constituencies far surpass their differences. You may or may not take heart in that discovery.

We repeatedly see the evidence of common challenges and opportunities. It doesn’t seem to matter the type of college or university we’re working with; most of them are trying to move four big rocks.

Grappling with a transactional mindset.

Another of Gardner’s team’s findings was a classification of motivations or “mental models” reflected in interviews with students. The Harvard team was able to identify students in at least one of four categories: inertial, transactional, exploratory or transformational. I sat on the edge of my seat for this presentation because I’ve been writing about the tension between transactional and transformational approaches to the college experience.

I’ve posed that the label “customer” is a fitting description of the current student and parent market. I’ve argued that we sometime treat students and parents worse than customers since campuses don’t entertain a return desk and families can’t get their money back if they’re dissatisfied. I’m raising a host of questions with opportunity for debate; let’s get together and talk about this.

But for the moment, let me suggest how I interpret student comments as reflecting a transactional mindset. We have opportunity to interview hundreds of college students each year. In our conversations we hear these expressions symptomatic of “transaction speak”:

“I came here because they gave me the most aid/best deal.” They literally say “best deal” despite all attempts to help families consider value propositions rather than price.                 

“I thought I should double major or double minor since I was paying so much.” While we could argue that such comments may suggest an appreciation of value, we’re more inclined to appropriate these types of comments as related to consumption factors.                

“I applied to 22 schools.” The pattern of applying to many institutions may be a cultural phenomenon (some suggest it’s a byproduct of a self-focused generation); regardless, the behavior suggests a lack of investigative work to find best fit. If any school can deliver the degree, students are not discerning much beyond transaction.

“Their job placement rate is high.” When employment and income are seen as the payoff (85% of freshmen said this was an important consideration for college according to the most recent CIRP), the emphasis is on exchange (“I’ll give you tuition dollars in exchange for a job at the end.”)

Gardner’s research team discovered that some students indeed come with the intention of transformation; they hope to be changed in some way by broader worldview or enhanced personal or professional capabilities. On campus, faculty and staff tend to celebrate those students more vigorously as more indicative of institutional values. While transactional and transformational mindsets are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it can often be the case that students who come with a transactional mindset are not welcomed by a community focused on transformation. Coming to terms with students-as-consumers is a big rock for most colleges and universities.

Climbing without distinctive and meaningful vision

Strategic planning seems to be on another round of popularity though the focus now appears to be in shaping student experience in a significant way to distinguish the institution from competitive peers. The cycle of change for general education requirements and core curricula is once again working its way into visioning. Frankly, it’s about time; higher ed offerings were (are!) getting tired. Campus leaders are garnering courage to eliminate outdated and ineffective offerings and that is a very good trend.

Still, while curricular change is a huge rock, we’re noticing short cuts toward defining a distinctive experience. As higher ed can be prone to do, colleges and universities are copying the solutions that seem to be successful among peers and adopting them into their own institutions creating a never-ending cycle of sameness. To create a distinctive market position, institutions simply must work less at being more like aspirational peers and more like a better version of themselves.

To shape a true market position, institutions must decide to do something no other institution does (or very few do). Of course, this type of commitment requires bravery. To secure a strong and sustainable future, colleges must create monopolies, if possible. Colleges must deliver offerings and promises that cannot be found elsewhere in order to maintain an audience or market for their services. Colleges must shape experiences for students that have, in fact, no peers. Our aim for clients is to create spaces that only they can occupy in the minds of their constituents.

When shaping vision to sustain the campus through the coming demographic shifts, seek onlyness to create ongoing demand for your institution. As Marty Neumeier suggests in his book Zag, identifying how you are the only offering of its kind ensures a relevant and sustainable market position.

Treating audiences as a monolith

If there’s fun to be had in marketing higher ed, it can be found in the remarkable capacity to manage and maneuver data that has never been more plentiful. Data has changed marketing strategy in thousands of ways, completely eliminating some stages of engagement. When I began my work in higher ed (about a hundred years ago it seems), we were all about building a huge up-front inquiry pool of potential students and donors. Today, the focus is on end stages, commitments, yield strategies, and—dare I say it?—closing sales.

Keep this in mind: Big data doesn’t recruit students, but it informs people who do. People still do the work of engaging students, inspiring donors, building relationships. Failures, however, are often due to lack of using wonderful information that big data provides; either as a matter of ignoring the data or not knowing how to use it.

Your ability to segment audiences to one-to-one encounters can help you target with confidence, generate results more effectively and save thousands of dollars (more on that in a moment). Many institutions are behaving out of habit, buying way too many names for search, investing too much in mass communication or hosting elaborate events without sufficient success.

Understanding the value of tiny data in the midst of the big data will serve you best in maturing relationships that engage individuals.

Under-utilizing technology as strategy

Make the most of your tech resources on campus. We often see the availability of sophisticated systems, teams and capacities that could be far more effectively engaged.

It’s more than likely you have a tech stack on your campus that can help you do everything you really need in managing a results-generating marketing strategy. If you have the following in place, you’re in a very good position to make tech do what you want it to.

Customer Relationship Management software (CRM): The two strongest options at this point are SalesForce (or some product on that platform like TargetX or EnrollmentRX) and Technolutions Slate, likely the fastest growing in the enrollment arena (but with an advancement model up and coming). You may have dedicated CRMs by division (ie, Fire Engine Red’s Fireworks for admissions or Blackbaud’s Raiser’s Edge for fund-raising).  Your CRM stores and captures data about each of your constituents that can be used to fuel your human and automated efforts in communication, outreach and engagement.

Marketing Automation: Your communication channels can be managed, tracked  and automated via systems such as Marketo, Salesforce Marketing Cloud, HubSpot and Eloqua (and dozens of others). This technology helps you market your institution on multiple channels including email, social media, your website and the like.

Content Management System (CMS): These technologies (think WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and a host of others) give you capacity to modify and add content to your website without much technical expertise.

Most of our clients have robust technologies in place but many are not sufficiently empowering those assets to best benefit. In combination, these three technologies can do the work you see being done by major corporations. Harnessing the power of this stack should be a priority.

As but one example, student search to generate inquiries may be readily operated on campus using this stack. Many institutions invest hundreds of thousands of dollars with student search vendors that could be better invested in other efforts on campus. We’ve observed clients who have reduced their investment in search by 50 to 75 percent using these on-campus resources. Make the most with what you already have on hand.

If you can move any of those four rocks, this will be a very good year. You don’t have to lift those boulders by yourself. We’re equipped to help you.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.