Show Students What Sets You Apart

by George C. Dehne

To recruit students effectively, you need a shared vision of what distinguishes your institution from others. Bringing campus constituencies together can help you achieve this vision.

At the root of any strategic-planning process lies a deceptively simple question: Who are we? Many colleges spend months, if not years, trying to answer it. The misguided among them count the number of library books, review the faculty's publishing record, and take stock of their facilities. In the process, they fail to develop a shared vision of the institution, which is the true bedrock of strategic planning.

In recent months, I have conducted workshops that challenge colleges to take a shortcut to a shared vision. We speed up the process by bringing students, administrators, trustees, alumni, and faculty together for a one or two-day session to discuss the institutional position -- with surprising results.

What's in it for them?

A strategic-planning analysis begins by answering the following questions:

  1. What does your institution do (or think it does)? How is the institutional mission expressed in the activities of the college?
  2. What does your institution do better than others?
  3. How does your institution answer the primary question of students: What can your college offer me?

Each of these questions contains a clear message, and answering them honestly will result in effective planning, better promotional programs, and institutional solidarity.

Starting from the student perspective is the wisest route. What is your institution's role if not to provide a sound intellectual and academic experience that will enrich students' lives? From my view, only major research universities can argue another equally compelling mission.

Students seek the benefits of the college experience.They are not interested in the features of your college; rather, they want to know what those features will do for them. An electron microscope holds no charm if students cannot use it. The question, then, is: "Why should an 18-year-old care?"

Setting the stage

Before your group of institutional representatives can answer these questions, however, they need some ground rules. Trustees, students, faculty, and administrators bring different perspectives and have varying degrees of knowledge. They must be on the same course.

Develop a glossary

Agreement on terms, phrases, and usage is essential if you expect diverse groups to intelligently discuss the same issues. Spend a little time describing terms such as service marketing, positioning, strategic planning, and so forth.

Look at national research

Comparing your institution to norms within higher education will give the group a context for discussion. Consider what national research says about students and their view of college and life. Armed with this information, your internal constituencies will become aware that (1) your college is not alone in its problems, (2) students actually do make rational college choices, and (3) recruiting students (or raising money) extends beyond the admissions or development office to involve the entire institution.

Review what you already know

Review your own research and other pertinent information. Examples include market studies, data from the American Council on Education's Cooperative Institutional Research Project, a survey of recently admitted applicants, or a "climate" study done for an accreditation review. Outline how various constituencies view your institution.

The thematic approach

Before assembling the group, someone -- perhaps the president, top administrators, and the board chair -- should develop a set of "themes" that describe what your institution believes in and does well. At a workshop I conducted at St. Lawrence University, we voiced the college's concern for the "global perspective" as one of five themes.

You may choose general themes such as "liberal arts college" or "residential campus." However, this technique seems to work best if the themes are more specific and descriptive.

At the workshop, break the group into its components -- students,faculty,administrators, and trustee -- and charge the subgroups to conduct the following exercise for each theme:

  1. Determine if the theme appropriately describes your institution.
  2. Provide evidence from any sector of your institution (academic, social, residential, off-campus, and so forth) to prove its validity. This proof might include whole programs, a single course, activities on campus, or pre-existing conditions (heritage, location, and the like).
  3. What are the benefits of each theme to students? For example, at St. Lawrence, the groups had to ask: "Why should a student care if St. Lawrence has overseas programs or encourages foreign language study?"
  4. What does your institution do to advance a theme that other colleges do not? Is your institution's approach any different from that of other selective colleges? If so, how? We agreed that St. Lawrence's Kenya program, which includes a home stay with a family, was something out of the ordinary.
  5. How can your institution strengthen the theme so that it contributes even more to institutional ethos? This part of the exercise demands a future orientation.

After tallying group responses, the entire group should review which themes best describe your institution and serve your students, which themes have no supporting evidence, and which themes need improvement.

The results

To date,I have conducted several of these workshops. Each time,the groups have impressed me with their spirit and with the enormous progress they made in a short time. In general,the workshops have several positive effects:

Is a positioning or theme workshop right for your institution? Yes, if various arms of your college appear to be waving in different directions. Yes, if the admissions office is not accurately presenting your institution to prospective students. Yes, if you want to get a strategic-planning process off to a fast start.

If your institution already has consensus about its direction, consider yourself fortunate, and get on with the business of making 18-year olds care about college.

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