• August 29, 2015

At Private Colleges' Meeting, Advice on Niche Strategies, Branding, and Leadership

In the crowded field of private colleges, only those that differentiate themselves with signature programs and unique marketing strategies can hope to thrive in a challenging economy, several panelists stressed here on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Echoing themes espoused by many college presidents in recent years, conference presenters suggested the institutions that will emerge stronger from the recession will have done so by building upon clearly articulated identities. That means setting a finite number of realistic goals, cutting programs that don't serve those goals, and—candidly—deciding whether a college's vision can increase revenues, said Robert A. Sevier, senior vice president for strategy at Stamats Inc., a higher-education marketing company.

In his session, "Six Strategic Responses in a Time of Challenge and Opportunity," Mr. Sevier argued that the economic crisis had given university leaders greater flexibility to articulate institutional visions, in part by doing away with nonviable programs. Citing Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, Mr. Sevier said, "This is a great time to do things you could never get away with 10 years ago."

Beyond developing a coherent vision, Mr. Sevier urged college leaders to seek new revenue through grants and contracts, while taking a hard look at improving retention rates and preserving tuition dollars.

In another session, "Image Is Everything," a branding consultant urged conference attendees to better define their institutions by developing more coherent and consistent messages. Too often, individual academic units create recruitment and marketing materials that fail to tie into established institution-wide themes, said Elizabeth Scarborough, chief executive officer of SimpsonScarborough.

"If an institution is going to manage its image, somebody's got to be in charge of pulling it together," she said.

By way of example, Ms. Scarborough noted that different departments are prone to creating "bastardized" logos that differ in appearance from an institution's established emblem. A well-branded company like Target "would never" alter the color of its signature red trademark, but "we do that daily on our campuses," she said.

At a session on leadership, Roger H. Hull, a former president of Beloit College and Union College (N.Y.), offered practical tips for college presidents on small things they could to increase their success in the job. Mr. Hull, who now runs a foundation for youth in Schenectady, N.Y., is the author of Lead or Leave: A Primer for College Presidents and Board Members.

Among other things, he said:

  • Don't rent the fanciest cars or stay in luxury hotels when you're on university business. Your donors will see "you're not having them give money to keep you in a certain lifestyle." Mr. Hull said he rented compact cars and paid the difference when he chose fancier accommodations over a midrange hotel. His motto, he said, was "Live for the job, not on the job." (That idea should also apply to the president's home, he said. Any changes he wanted to make at the president's house, he paid for himself.)
  • Accept that the college president's post comes with intense scrutiny, and embrace it. "Love the fishbowl," said Mr. Hull, who spent a total of 24 years as the president of the two colleges. And make sure your spouse is on the same page. Mr. Hull said his wife didn't feel the same way about the scrutiny that the position entailed, and that ultimately cost him his marriage.
  • Have an open-door policy, but go outside the office if people don't visit you. "Manage by wandering around," he said.
  • If you can stay for only part of an event, come at the end of it rather than leave early. Coming late signals you had another commitment, while leaving early says you're not interested.
  • Answer everyone's e-mail and other messages, and defuse conflicts early. If you hear of dissent in a faculty meeting, go to the office of the unhappy faculty member and talk over the issue, before it becomes a bigger problem.
  • Take your vacations. In addition to giving you time to unwind from the stresses of the job, vacations let you know how well your staff does in your absence. "It's a great way to see how people function, without looking over their shoulder," Mr. Hull said.


1. jffoster - February 01, 2011 at 04:14 pm

When a society has too many colleges, there comes a focusing on image, "brand", logos, trendiness, and style over substance. Some of these private colleges are going to close; I hope they do it while they still have some dignity left but that's probably too much to generally expect.

2. jeff1 - February 01, 2011 at 04:35 pm

There are not too many colleges . . . demand for graduates has increased as we have moved to the information age. Can we get better . . . YES! Are we ahead of every civilized and uncivilized nation on this planet and in human history . . . YES!

China would love to have the number of colleges & universities we have. Some will undoubtedly close as will many many more businesses and as will many many many more entrepreneurs!

3. jthelin - February 01, 2011 at 04:40 pm

In general I think independent colleges and universities will be more resilient than state universities. Many state universities are spoiled -- for example, how many independent colleges whine because they did not receive a special appropriation for heating and maintaining a building from their legislature?

4. mjk5862 - February 01, 2011 at 04:43 pm

Let's save the taxpayers money and close many of the public colleges instead. The cost to educate a student at a state school is higher than what privates cost and their efficiency is often poor.

5. jeff1 - February 01, 2011 at 05:02 pm

The problem is mjk5862 . . . there are not enough seats by far at private colleges to meet the real demand if we close the publics. Public institutions are the majority of higher education and they are not all bad or good just like not all privates are good or bad or for-profits are bad or good.

Besides there are a number of very good public institutions: William & Mary, Penn State, etc.

6. jffoster - February 01, 2011 at 05:03 pm

Don't worry folks. There'll be some state colleges closing too.

7. midevilprof - February 02, 2011 at 07:20 am

This current conventional wisdom goes against some of the findings in "Academically Adrift" that liberal arts and sciences are essential for higher attainment in student learning. But some of the very same disciplines are also "not viable" in comparison to more popular fields like business. So colleges are to pump up marketing and eliminate philosophy to draw in more students and then do a poorer job educating them? I'm beginning to think that maybe every (or almost every) student should MINOR in business in order to do due diligence for future employability, but major in a more traditional discipline for better overall learning and achieve the goals of true education: expanding the mind and preparing for life, not just a job.

8. painter33 - February 02, 2011 at 11:26 am

Having a nIche school is not a new idea; a successful college or university should have carved that out long ago. Being generic is a rather ignominious goal, one would think. Schools of art, especially in public institutions, tend to be left out of this opportunity because they must satisfy so many masters - legislators, public secondary schools that have cut art out of their curricula, and the general public "taste". Those schools have similar curricula, the same array of disciplines (a misplaced term in some cases as there might be little actual discipline involved), and turn out students who have or lack a similar range of experience and skill level. Privates, on the other hand, can take more chances, can be more demanding, or limit themselves to doing just a few things very well. The basic differences come down to publics trying to serve all comers and privates attempts to attract a student with certain and specific interests, often enrolled after a directed recruiting effort. When I led one private art school, I told prospective students that I was like a football coach recruiting athletes, only I didn't have to worry about the NCAA rules - I could make substantial scholarship offers on the spot - I could essentially buy talent. I've never had that luxury in a public college/university where most scholarships were awarded by the institution through its main financial aid office. The few local (department) scholarships were usually small and awarded after a student enrolled. There is but one art-only public, stand alone art college in the country that can attract students nationally, the rest (public) have to depend on the local supply of interest to provide its student base, usually demanding everything.

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