(I originally published this post as a byline in Forbes on August 23, 2012.)
Within the next month, high school students around the world will venture off on one of life’s most important—and in many cases, most stressful—journeys: the trip to college. As the back-to-school season kicks into high gear, the pressure and anxiety finally starts to subside for young people (and often their parents), who started this journey over a year ago, competing to beat seemingly impossible odds for a spot at a selective college. How impossible? Harvard’s acceptance rate for the Class of 2016 dropped to a record 5.9%, and the number of overall applications seems be growing every year.
But the tables turn once the acceptance letters are mailed.
Institutions of higher education have a huge stake in the quality and type of students they attract, as the composition of their student body is critical to their development and success. Degree candidates and holders alike view the university as serving them—teaching them, placing them in careers and graduate schools, and providing a lifelong community—but this is only half the equation. An institution’s ability to raise its standing, attract top faculty, develop new programs, and bring in top recruiters relies on the talents of its campus population. Increasing its endowment, expanding in size and scope, and staying engaged with the world all depend on students and alumni who are both ambassadors and supporters of the school.
Every school that extends offers of admission hopes that as many admitted students as possible will enroll. Consequently, colleges and universities make substantial efforts to attract applicants who best fit their mission and goals—irrespective of those students’ finances, backgrounds, or location. Competitive schools, large and small, pour funds into financial aid and travel the world to identify and attract top students. Small and rural Davidson College was the nation’s first liberal arts college to replace loans with grants, so that its students could graduate debt-free. The University of Southern California, thanks to its recruiting trips to 100 high schools around the world, boasts the greatest total number of international students.
These tactics are only the beginning. Ideally, they are part of a larger, more comprehensive brand strategy. Although branding has traditionally been associated with the private sector, more and more higher education institutions are recognizing its value and adopting it. Just last month, for example, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School launched a new brand platform based on the idea that Wharton knowledge fuels action.
University and college marketers should consider the following four principles to strengthen their brands and attract the students they want:
1. Everyone has an opinion about college, and they’re not afraid to share it. Listen to what is being said about you, and know where you stand.
This is an essential first step. There’s a conversation about every university brand, and in the digital age that conversation is both accessible and pervasive. Find out what’s said about your institution in traditional media—in, say, college admissions guidebooks, the press, and even history books—as well as in increasingly trusted newer channels, such as social media networks and blogs. Ask current students, as well as alums, how they think about their school. Poll the faculty and the administration. Get in touch with high school guidance counselors and, at the other end, corporate recruiters and graduate school admissions departments. Hold open forums to talk through the institution’s identity, and listen for trends. Assess your organization’s reputation with every constituency. Be honest about assumptions and stereotypes, and even about notoriety.
2. It’s not all about rankings. Understand the competitive landscape and determine what sets your school apart.
Figure out where else your target students are applying and getting in, and who you’re winning and losing against. Perhaps your competitors share a common size, location, model (university vs. college, public vs. private), curriculum (liberal arts vs. pre-professional), or ideology (e.g., religious affiliation). You might consider some of your competitors to be peer schools and others to be of higher or lower rank. Are there areas in which your institution can be the best? Comparing your organization with competitors will quickly illuminate your strengths and weaknesses, which in turn will reveal key points of differentiation.
Babson College, in Massachusetts, has taken into account the saturated Boston higher education market and has successfully differentiated itself. With only 1,956 students, Babson could easily disappear in the galaxy of Boston schools, but its all-business image and focus on entrepreneurship has set it apart. Babson offers an accelerated business program for students who want a fast track to a career. The fact that 96% of Babson grads successfully enter the job market or graduate school within the first six months after commencement—when 53.6% of all bachelor’s degree holders under 25 are jobless or underemployed—certainly supports that philosophy.
3. Your value proposition is more than your sports team or student-to-faculty ratio. Define what you want to stand for and preserve and embrace both the tangible and intangible elements that make your brand unique.
A university’s value proposition represents a combination of tangible and intangible elements. Besides its curriculum, sports teams, and facilities, every higher education institution also has a less definable personality, culture, and experience to offer. The latter contribute equally to prospective students’ notions of “fit,” which weighs heavily in their decisions. The campus visit is often the moment when fit becomes palpable to a student’s senses and when the decision becomes more emotional. A strong brand focuses on the most differentiating and compelling aspects of a college or university’s value proposition and appeals to constituents on both a rational and an emotional level.
Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, recognizes the value of its quirky, nerdy image in attracting its target of highly academic students. Rather than pack multiple meanings into its brand, Reed is very clear about what it is—intellectual, low-maintenance, community-driven—and what it is not—athletic, boastful, rowdy. One of its most renowned former students was Steve Jobs, and “Reedies” are not afraid to think different(ly). They fulfill the college’s commitment to academia in spades. A higher percentage of Reed grads go on to earn Ph.D.s across fields than do graduates of all but three other U.S. colleges and universities. With a student body of less than 1,500, the small school has managed to produce 31 Rhodes scholars, second only to one other liberal arts college. Its acceptance rate of 39.8% might make it seem less selective than it actually is. In fact, the average grade point average of admitted students is a whopping 3.9. Because of Reed’s focused and authentic brand, its applicants are largely self-selecting.
4. Effective university brands exist in three dimensions. Be true to who you are, and deliver your brand seamlessly across all touch points.
A brand is more than a logo, and it’s not just for marketing materials and websites; it’s a rallying cry and an aspiration for the entire university community. It’s inextricably linked to the institution’s overall strategy, and it should be present in everything from classes to events to architecture to publications.
Middlebury College’s brand comes to life in every initiative the small but outward-looking college takes. Until recently, Middlebury had little to distinguish itself from its reputable New England liberal arts peers besides its rigorous language programs. Its decision to capitalize on this strength and become known for globalism, however, transformed the school. Today, Middlebury is not just the gold standard in languages and study abroad; its reach also extends far beyond its rural Vermont base to its Schools Abroad in more than 40 universities in 15 countries, as well as to the West Coast’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, with which it became affiliated in 2005. Over the course of this strategic branding, Middlebury’s applicant pool has increased immensely, from about 5,000 applicants in 2000 to 8,500 in 2011. This has allowed Middlebury to be more selective about its student body: The acceptance rate dropped from 26% to 18% over the same period.
For colleges and universities, branding is an investment that perpetuates itself in the continued matriculation of the most qualified and best-suited students. Whether the institution measures its return on that investment in a higher ranking, a lower acceptance rate, a greater yield, a bigger endowment, a higher average starting salary, a better grad-school admission rate, or a greater percentage of alumni who donate, the student body it attracts initially is integral to any and all results. Colleges and universities, much like their applicants, have to showcase and prove their value to decision makers. Those with the strongest brands will undoubtedly rise to the forefront and continue to own the decision.
But wait--there's more! Find out which schools made our slideshow of the top ten college brands.