by Dan Woychick
Like the very proper announcer who provided transitions between outlandish scenes in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, colleges and universities would like to promise that they are completely different from their competitors. Unfortunately, most schools’ marketing boldly goes where everyone has gone before:
- Where Success Begins With You!
- From Here You Can Go Anywhere!
- What College Should Be!
Though one might fault marketers for a lack of imagination, the truth is a little more painful: most schools just aren’t that different. And that spells trouble.
Books, magazines, newspapers, and music have all seen dominant business models rendered obsolete in recent years. Higher education is ripe for the same kind of disruption witnessed in other information industries.
Earlier this year, technology observer Clay Shirky argued that “complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond.” Notice any stress in higher ed recently?
Trying to be all things to all people can prevent institutions from responding to the challenge of doing things differently.
No one said this was going to be easy
As difficult as it might be for some institutions to undertake a new branding or marketing effort, it pales in comparison to taking a cold hard look in the mirror and deciding “We’re this, not that.”
The fact that this kind of systemic review hasn’t happened on a broad scale only points to the opportunity waiting for those institutions able to move more urgently. As Anya Kamenetz notes in her book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, if institutions are unable or unwilling to change, others will fill the void.
Different is as different does
What might this new world of higher education look like? It could be college that’s no longer campus-based. It could come from a realization that all students are “non-traditional.” Maybe some schools will entirely forsake athletics. The point is that a higher education monoculture is both unacceptable and unhealthy.
Some schools already maintain distinct models that serve them well:
- At St. John’s College in Maryland, there are no majors or departments. All classes are discussion-based and no textbooks are used. Now that’s different!
- At Berea College all students receive a full, four-year scholarship, putting real action behind the school’s mission to provide opportunity to academically promising students who have limited financial resources.
- Missouri University of Science & Technology, formerly the University of Missouri-Rolla, changed its named to better reflect the school’s academic focus.
Different is good
Cynically, one could look at marketing simply as a way to raise the perceived value of what colleges offer so that regular cost increases are more acceptable. Ideally, however, a marketing campaign helps a school draw distinctions that attract students who are the right fit. The better an organization can differentiate its operations and offerings, not just its tagline, the more successful its marketing will be.