What Makes Your College so Special?

In the increasingly competitive arena of higher education, a growing number of colleges are closing due to a chronic decline in enrollment and ensuing financial troubles. The impending “enrollment cliff” and rising skepticism among students, parents, and employers about the value of a college degree paint an even bleaker picture.

Nevertheless, amidst this gloomy trend, certain institutions are not just surviving – they’re thriving. The secret to their resilience? Distinction and distinctiveness.

Distinction: Excellence at Every Level

Distinction is the first pillar that separates thriving institutions from those struggling to keep their doors open. Distinction refers to the excellence of a college’s academic programs, faculty, and the institution as a whole. It’s about being recognized for delivering high-quality education that equips students with the knowledge and skills they need to excel in their chosen professions.

However, distinction isn’t merely about having top-tier programs on paper. It’s about actualizing this excellence in a way that positively impacts students’ learning experiences and future career prospects. It involves cultivating an environment that encourages academic rigor, intellectual growth, and the pursuit of innovation.

Proving distinction involves demonstrating excellence and superiority in various aspects of the institution. This can be shown through high passage rates on licensure exams, job-placement rates, successful alumni, scores on standardized field-of-study tests, leading-edge research, and distinguished faculty.

Distinctiveness: Carving Out a Unique Niche

While distinction is crucial, it isn’t sufficient on its own. This brings us to the second pillar: distinctiveness.

Distinctiveness means having a unique identity or niche that sets an institution apart from the others. A college becomes truly distinctive when it offers unique features or qualities that set it apart from other institutions. These features should be more than just a rigorous curriculum or intelligent students, as these are expected in any reputable institution. Instead, a distinctive college should possess characteristics that are not commonly found in other colleges.

A college can be distinctive through its academic programs, offering specialized programs that aren’t widely available elsewhere, or adopting a unique approach to teaching and learning. This could involve a strong emphasis on experiential learning, interdisciplinary studies, or community engagement.

Distinctiveness can also be achieved through the college’s culture and community. This could involve a vibrant student life, or a unique tradition or ethos that permeates the campus. A college’s location and physical environment can also contribute to its distinctiveness.

Finally, a distinctive college often has a clear, compelling, and concise vision that guides its actions and decisions. This vision might involve a commitment to serving a particular population, addressing a specific economic or vocational need, or advancing a certain field of study.

The Necessity of Distinction and Distinctiveness

In today’s saturated higher education market, simply existing as a college isn’t enough. Institutions must strive for distinction and distinctiveness to attract students and survive.

These twin pillars directly address the concerns and desires of today’s students. In this age of information, students are more discerning than ever. They’re looking for an institution that not only provides excellent education but does so in a way that aligns with their interests, values, and career goals. Moreover, they want value for their tuition dollars. They want their time in college to be an investment that produces a good return.

Colleges that fail to stand out – either through distinction or distinctiveness – risk blending into the crowd, leading to the declining enrollments that are forcing many institutions to close.

The Future of Higher Education

Institutions that wish to thrive in the ever-competitive landscape of higher education must embrace the twin pillars of distinction and distinctiveness. It’s not enough to believe you possess these qualities; you must demonstrate them clearly and consistently.

As colleges face an uncertain future, the challenge lies in crafting a unique identity and maintaining a commitment to excellence. Only then can they draw in students, survive, and ideally, thrive in the changing landscape of higher education.

Governing boards and state legislators (for public institutions) need to pause and reflect on their respective institutions. What immediately springs to mind when you mention that college or university? If you struggle to identify a highly distinguishing characteristic and your thoughts are reduced to generic qualities such as “good program” or “student-centered”, it’s time to take a closer look. If these phrases are the best descriptors for your institution, you may want to examine its enrollment trend. Such characteristics are common to nearly all colleges. If your institution doesn’t stand out, it could be in trouble.

What makes your college so special? – by Robin Capehart (substack.com)

Home – Collegiate Consulting