By Heather O’Leary, Principal Analyst
In today’s highly competitive higher education market, it is essential for colleges to define a unique value proposition to differentiate themselves from competitors and attract students. Many colleges struggle, however, to get beyond highlighting the features they offer (e.g., number of majors, faculty-to-student ratio, availability of financial aid) and clearly articulate the benefits their institution can provide students. Often, colleges fall into the “me too” dilemma, where they strive to show students that they offer all the features that other colleges offer. The result is that no one stands out from the crowd.
Rather than define a unique value proposition, most colleges engage in a tuition discount frenzy, which sends students the implicit message that cost, rather than overall value, is what matters most. Our data indicates that this assumption about students’ enrollment motivators is wrong: a perception of value is a significantly stronger enrollment driver than cost. Unlike retailers who engage in strategic discounting on Black Friday and Cyber Monday to help drive traffic to their stores during the holidays, tuition discounting is not helping many colleges meet their enrollment and tuition revenue targets.
To communicate value, colleges need to focus on communicating the main benefit that students care about: outcomes. The annual Eduventures Prospective Student Survey indicates that career preparation and long-term professional success have surpassed the college’s academic strength in terms of driving traditional students’ enrollment choices. Additionally, a recent Eduventures study asked parents and prospective students who are in the college search process about specific benefits on which they evaluate schools. Five of the top 10 are career related (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Top Benefits Identified by Prospective Students*
- Being able to pursue a personally fulfilling career path
- Having skills that will enable them to enter a specific career
- Being adaptable for future careers and career changes
- Being able to conduct themselves in a professional manner
- Learning to apply academic concepts to real-world situations
Unfortunately, enrollment managers have limited confidence in their ability to convey their colleges’ strength in these same areas. Too many clients we work with know that they are not doing a good enough job communicating their value proposition to their most important constituents, and they find themselves confusing common features with unique benefits in their messages.
To avoid falling into this common trap and get started in identifying your college’s benefits, ask these key questions:
- What are the benefits of your approach to the classroom experience? How does that make a difference in your students’ learning? (Hint: Explain why students should care if the faculty-to-student ratio is 1:16 and not 1:20 or 1:30.)
- What programs do you have in place to help prepare graduates with the skills that employers want? What do you offer to students that they can’t get anywhere else and that employers are eager to have? (Hint: Your placement rate is a feature of your success, but it doesn’t communicate why you are successful.)
- How does your portfolio of learning opportunities (e.g., academic programs, experiential learning, social environment) prepare students academically, personally and professionally? (Hint: The number of majors you offer is not the answer.)
- Why are you worth the investment? (Hint: It’s not because you made it affordable through your financial aid program.)
There is a new reality that colleges need to accept: schools that most effectively communicate a clear value proposition that links academic offerings to outcomes will have a clear competitive advantage in attracting the next generation of students.
*Please note that in an earlier version of this post, we included a graphic that listed the “Top Five” college benefits. To clarify, the five benefits listed in this blog post are not the top five overall, but the top five career related benefits.