Reed President William Trufant Foster, looking over a field at the future site of Reed College, 1910. The field is on the cross-canyon northern side of campus, and there are cows in the pasture.
“Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia universities reported record-low freshman admission rates for the 2013-2014 academic year as applications climbed above or held near all-time highs. Harvard offered seats to 2,029 students, or 5.8 percent of a record 35,023 applicants, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based school said yesterday in a statement. Yale accepted 6.7 percent, Princeton offered admission to 7.3 percent and Columbia accepted 6.89 percent, the schools said in statements.
Top U.S. colleges that offer generous financial aid are luring record numbers of applicants even as the cost to attend increases faster than the pace of inflation and the number of high school graduates declines. The Common Application, an online form that lets students apply to multiple schools, has helped drive the surge.”
—Bloomberg.com, March 28, 2013
The questions that any business should be able to answer are: what differentiates us from our competitors such that the customer is willing to choose us and pay for our services over another business? What are we offering that is different/better/special? What is our unique selling proposition? What makes us who we are and how do we stand out in the marketplace? Any business that cannot answer these fundamental questions is doomed—colleges included.
Any college—particularly one that wants someone to pay for their offerings—should be very clear about what their offering is. I don't think they get this by asking the student to be honest, or by hosting focus groups, but by looking at the market place, looking at their target audience and their needs—specifically at the problem they are looking to solve; and then by being able to analyze what's happening in the market, what's available, what isn't, what's needed, what interests are currently not being served, and where they as a college fill the gap.
The problem with a lot of liberal arts colleges at the moment is that many of them are offering the same, or very similar, educational models to one another. There's not a huge difference in terms of their offerings. In such a marketplace, the marketing power of exclusivity reigns. Quality is judged by consumer rankings that serve to homogenize a college’s offerings in order to compete. A priority is placed upon obtaining a high application rate as a measure of demand—in a market where many prospect students are encouraged apply to a dozen or more schools—and subsequently the higher the rejection rate the better. Scarcity becomes the primary measure of prestige.
In most businesses, this copycat phenomenon cannot last in the long term. Carrying the same offering as other colleges simply devalues each college's brand ultimately, and leads to a loss in standards (which again devalues the brand). Why should someone choose X college over Y college if it's all the same? This is why it ultimately becomes difficult for a business to simply raise prices and expect people to pay unless that business is offering something that is different, unique, special, and better than others.
The colleges that have maintained their distinctiveness and thus their competitive edge will in the long term, I believe, have the most opportunity for growth that will be long lasting.
Even in today’s competitive higher education marketplace, it seems to me that what some people are willing to pay for is something that is unique, that is different, that is of value and, most importantly, something that cannot be found elsewhere. This means that the brand must be strong, the student must trust that brand more than another and have a clear sense that the education they are paying for can only come from that particular source, and that the brand’s difference must be capable of making a difference in their life.
Are we more interested in getting applications or in maintaining the value and integrity of our college? If the latter, how do we best communicate that value and integrity in a marketplace chasing ratings and high rejection rates? How do we demonstrate that the difference makes a difference?