As institutions of higher education move to differentiate themselves from their competition can they also meet the needs of their students?
Jack Welch the iconic former chairman and CEO of General Electric was quoted as saying “In every company, differentiation is never more important than it is in times of trouble, and that's the time when everyone tends to go to the well and equalize rather than differentiate.” I'm not sure all leaders in higher education would agree that we're in a time of trouble, but certainly, the industry faces challenges as a result of shrinking enrollments and the recession-like state of the economy.
In the face of these challenges, there has been a notable shift away from a demographics-based recruitment and retention approach to an approach centered around differentiation. In a report produced by the Parthenon Group the benefit of higher education moving to a differentiation approach was outlined in detail. “The traditional process segmenting the student market by demographics- traditional versus nontraditional- students is no longer sufficient in providing college leaders with the strategic understanding they need. Leaders need a more nuanced understanding of what drives the enrollment decisions of prospective students, into what products and offerings meet these students' needs.” https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/the-differentiated-university-wp-web-final.pdf
A Gallup survey of college and university presidents completed several years ago noted that the “college experience has evolved from emphasizing mastery to fostering human development” https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/185411/presidents-differentiate-university-identity.aspx.
Over the past decade, I have visited 50 college campuses (yes, I counted) and drove thousands of miles to help my three children find the campus experience that was right for them. I cannot speak for them, but I believe that the process was more personalization rather than differentiation. One school even had my daughter's name on a signboard in lights. They all had positive experiences at the schools they chose to attend, but that doesn’t mean that those institutions were successful in differentiating themselves from the dozen or so other schools each of them applied to.
That’s because as colleges and universities have attempted to differentiate themselves, they may not have fully grasped the expectations and needs of the student. In the Harvard Business Review article Do Colleges Truly Understand What Students Want from Them https://hbr.org/2019/10/do-colleges-truly-understand-what-students-want-from-them authors Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta outline the “Jobs be done theory” to help explain the disconnect between how a college differentiates itself and whether that different student experience actually meets the needs of the student.
For example, employers have identified a gap between what college students learn in college and what is applicable in the workplace. This is not just about the field of study or the courses the student takes but it is also about preparing that student for the modern workplace. A workplace that has been made more complex by the pandemic.
In the previously mentioned Gallup survey, one college president responded to the survey by saying that “The last 100 years had been largely about the faculty; The next 100 will be about the student.” Colleges have certainly recognized this trend and have worked to improve the student experience. Mental health and physical health wellness have been at the center of some of the successful programs and partnerships implemented.
However, true differentiation can only be achieved when the colleges align these enhanced campus experiences with the needs of the student and that is a work in progress.,