Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Differentiating Your Campus: It's About the Students

Higher education has become intensely competitive, with a remarkable range of program options, delivered in various ways and at various prices.  In that situation, how you communicate and demonstrate what you are about makes a huge difference.  In the business world, people talk about their “value proposition”:  What is your promise to students, and how do prospective students perceive that promise?

In my last post, I argued that it is difficult to differentiate on program or price, these days.  Instead, I maintained, how people are treated becomes a critical differentiator.  My prediction is that student-centered institutions will have a competitive advantage in the years to come.

Branch campuses should do well in this environment, given that most believe that personal service is fundamental to their mission.  Unfortunately, main campus processes and attitudes can be problematic, and some branch campus staff and faculty members are less student-oriented than we’d like.  Institutional leaders who want to see enrollment growth at their branch campuses need to help fix processes and change attitudes that get in the way.

What does it mean to be student centered?  It means that your web site is contemporary and easy to navigate.  It means your staff responds quickly and personally to inquiries, then stays in touch, providing information that matters to the audience.

If you are student centered, you make it easy to apply for admission, you are “transfer friendly,” and you appreciate the significance of financial aid.  You don’t play games with extra fees that distort the real cost of attending, and you use credit for prior learning to help cut the time to graduation.  Your class schedule includes online and hybrid options, to add flexibility.  When you promise a course, you deliver that course, and you schedule it to meet student needs, not anyone else’s.

At student-centered institutions, academic advising, supported by online information, is one of the deepest commitments. Retention efforts and learning support are state of the art and targeted to student success.  It should go without saying that office hours reflect student needs, not staffing convenience or historical practice.

One more point:  If you lead an institution, you should be obsessed with data and with continuous improvement.  Student support is an investment, not an overhead expense.  You should be able to show the financial return from each area of service, and use calculated dollar values before adding more staff.  It is important to offer the right programs, with the right delivery options, and at the right price.  But increasingly, your reputation for being student-centered will be critical.

A thoughtful, comprehensive approach to improving in each of the areas I mentioned should help you communicate the value added by enrolling at your campus.  Remember, your story will be told, as much by your students on Facebook and elsewhere, as in your online banner ads.  It’s a new world, and that world will reward institutions that pay attention to service.

No comments: