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Stand out to today's skeptical students in 3 steps

March 13, 2024, By Colin Koproske, Managing Director, Research Development

There is an urgent need for differentiation in higher ed. Traditional competitive boundaries are blurring, incoming classes are shrinking, and higher ed’s ROI is constantly questioned. This leads to a growing number of high school graduates deciding to opt out altogether and pursue nontraditional career paths.

In my work with colleges and universities, I see a lot of similar messages from schools that are misaligned with the changing needs of prospective students. Leaders are always excited to share their “unique” attributes during my campus visits, but those features are usually things I’ve heard time and again from others. An attractive campus, caring and innovative faculty, and a 90%+ post-graduation placement rate are now table stakes for competing—no longer sufficiently unique from your competitors. Uniquely academic features, like R1 status or a revised general education curriculum, tend not to translate to the interests of an average 18-year-old.

To stand out in this increasingly competitive market, institutions need to speak to the practical hopes, goals, and concerns of the current generation. A truly differentiated student value proposition is not only unique among competitors, but aligned tightly with audience demand. When I’m working with universities, I push them to follow these three basic steps when articulating their student value proposition(s):

  1. Identify and understand core student personas
  2. Brainstorm a list of strong institutional attributes and capabilities
  3. Ensure your strengths are relevant, distinctive, widely experienced by students, and provable

Each of these points is designed to guide you through the building process, helping your institution stand out in today’s market.

1. Identify and understand core student personas

To build a differentiated value proposition, you need to first understand your students’ psychological drives—what motivates them, their short- and long-term goals, and their fears. Student value proposition mapping puts leaders into prospective students’ shoes, helping them to see how their institution’s academic programs and support services align with student motivators. When doing this, you must keep your typical student persona (or a few specific archetypes) in mind. Don’t focus primarily on demographic characteristics—instead, discuss your target student personas from a psychosocial dimension, building a narrative about their environment, thought patterns, and interests.

Consider your students’ needs (educational goals), gains (emotional and social benefits), and pains (frustrations, risks, or obstacles). How do these variables impact not only the college search, but the decision to attend college in the first place? Try to be realistic, remembering to focus on how prospective students actually think—not how a perfectly rational actor might think, or how you imagine the ideal applicant might think.

Why do this? Beginning with the consumer in mind is key to avoiding a “product first” trap—fixating on your own perspective and historical strengths, rather than the ever-evolving needs of the market.

2. Brainstorm a list of strong institutional attributes and capabilities

Now that you’ve built a vivid picture of the student you serve today and desire to attract tomorrow, try generating a list of institutional attributes that might align with the needs, pains, and/or gains you identified in the persona exercise. Resist the urge to pin everything on a single “slogan” (i.e., “We put students at the center”) or a single variable (“We’re smaller than the large public alternatives in the region”).

Instead, identify a number of variables across a wide range of categories, including the obvious (size, institutional mission, location, programs, student demographics, cost) and the not-so-obvious (student support services, employment outcomes, external partnerships, curricular attributes, extra-curricular strengths, off-campus activities).

Look for combinations of attributes that, when taken in totality, add up to a truly distinctive claim. It’s difficult to be the only school with strong global connections, but you might be the most affordable school in your region for students in your region that want to explore global connections. After generating several of these “compound value statements,” you’re on your way to building a strong set of differentiators.

3. Ensure your strengths are relevant, distinctive, widely experienced by students, and provable

After agreeing on one or more value proposition statements, you need to ensure that they stand up to scrutiny. I find the following criteria helpful for evaluating the strength of a differentiation claim:

  1. Relevance – It must address the needs, pains, and gains that matter most to the audience, in the audience’s language.
  2. Difficulty to Replicate – Ensure you are communicating a unique approach or asset that outperforms the competition.
  3. Audience Participation – Most, if not all, audience members participate and receive its benefits. It is part of the core experience.
  4. Provability – Collecting and promoting outcomes data, social proof, or external recognition helps overcome any potential skepticism.

Separate your best ideas into current and aspirational buckets—current for those differentiators that already perform well against the four tests above, and aspirational for those that are important to the institution, but lacking in one or more of these dimensions. Aspirational claims should become key strategic priorities for the institution.

Remember, what’s distinctive today may not resonate with the next generation. Repeat these exercises periodically (and at different altitudes) to ensure your claims are up to date with the latest student trends and preferences.

Building a unique student value proposition is much easier said than done – and these steps are just the foundation. For more information on how to move away from generic claims to clear differentiators that demonstrate how your institution meets the needs of prospective students, see our executive brief.

Colin Koproske

Managing Director, Research Development

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