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.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Branch Campus Value Propositions

From Wikipedia:  A value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered and a belief from the customer that value will be experienced.”  What is your institution’s value proposition?  Does it distinguish you from your competitors?

Take a look at some institutional web sites and surf the Internet to see what is available.  I swear it seems as if every institution in the country is offering an online criminal justice program.  Check out how many business degrees and RN to BSN completion programs are available online.  Students have many options, and as they become increasingly value conscious, it follows that you need to make sure that your messaging differentiates your institution from competitors.

Now, consider the preferences of adult learners, who are a prime recruiting target:  We know they value the program they want, delivered flexibly and at an attractive price.  We know they care about how long it will take them to earn their credential.  So, your marketing-recruiting effort should set you apart in ways that matter to the audience you want to reach.

Sometimes, that sort of differentiation is difficult for branch campuses, as well as for online programs and main campus programs intended to serve adult learners.  However, if these audiences show the greatest potential for growth, then prospects need to easily find what interests them on the front door of the institution’s web site.  Links should be prominent and intuitive. 

For branch campuses, differentiating on program or price is increasingly difficult.  Students simply have too many options.  Although you may offer popular programs and price competitively, your prospects still have many ways to go.  Perhaps they are considering a fully online program, or maybe a key competitor offers an accelerated one-course-at-a-time model that you do not.  If you do not offer credit for prior learning, prospects may view that as a time and money issue, choosing to go elsewhere.

The point is that many students today will balance the pros and cons and then make a very intentional decision based on perceived value.  If differentiation based on program or price is difficult, then how do you set yourself apart?  Increasingly, in my opinion, the difference maker will be student services.  In an era driven by social media and word of mouth, institutions that are truly student-centered will have an advantage.  In the branch context, you need somehow to persuade students that connecting with you will bring value that is harder to find, elsewhere.

Next time:  What it means to be student centered.