With May 1 in the rearview, most institutions are carefully calculating the incoming class for the fall. “Carefully optimistic” is what we’re hearing from most of our clients, moderately sure of the current count, but uncertain of what the summer will bring both good and bad. While the reasons for confidence heading into the summer vary, one thing is for sure: decisions are getting later and later. I think we can attribute this to three factors:
Families have more control than they have had in the buying process. They are (broadly) more knowledgeable and have access to information about their options. They have less money than they’ve had in many years and are inclined to scrutinize (they would describe it as “due diligence”) their options before purchasing.
All of this action occurs on their timeframe, making arbitrary deadlines mute (see: May 1 and most other “transactional” deadlines). Institutions are losing confidence for a very good reason: they no longer control information or the length of the engagement. This is just plain data: May 1 doesn’t matter to the consumer and frankly doesn’t matter to institutions all that much.
In an effort to secure sales (there, I said it), institutions hype (oh, I meant, overemphasize) the decision to apply and attend as though it is the biggest decision ever. It’s indeed important, but probably not as important as some other life choices. While there is data to suggest that the decision is significant, from the consumer perspective, this is a fallacy. And, you’ve heard us say this before: if it’s not true, not trustworthy, exchange won’t happen.
Further, the college “trial period” is in full effect: a third of students are attending more than one college on their way to a four-year degree. A quarter of those are switching states in the process. This “swirling*” is mostly justified by the media as related to the cost of attendance. I interject: institutions are courting students to make the “decision of a lifetime” when the options are nearly the same. I won’t say the same, but VERY nearly the same. If this parity is as obvious as the consumer sees, to what end does committing early benefit them? And if option A is only slightly better (or different) than option B, how can an institution really be confident that they will attend and persist?
From an evolutionary perspective, everything is speeding up. From culture to climate, everything is changing more quickly. I didn’t make this up. Things that we wanted yesterday are obsolete today (see: my used-to-be-awesome TV and to a lesser extent, my goth phase). Options we had yesterday also multiply overnight. This amplification can be extended to MOOCs, proliferation of program offerings and whatever “the next big thing” is or will be.
In addition, the speed at which negative events are occurring delays decision-making. Your warehouse can collapse, your government can audit you arbitrarily and your admission office can fall into a sinkhole: right now. All of these elements manifest themselves as consumer indecision. Psychologically, indecision is the consequence of fear (from our animal brains), which essentially means, “I don’t want to make a mistake.”
None of this is particularly new information, nor does it significantly change the fact that at some point, institutions need to have some measure of who is coming in the fall. But that need for certainty on the part of the institution is being deflected onto the consumer as a superficial mandate. And in an era when every one hates colleges and universities, this seems antithetical to how institutions should behave.
To a larger detriment, institutions are actually embracing parity and ignoring any benefit that would result from being distinctive. It can be assumed that if the offerings were fundamentally different, then the certainty of the decision more definitive. Finally, as indecision is the result of a primal fear for making a mistake, then wouldn’t it behoove institutions to combat fear with love?
Realizing that superficial similarities can mask important underlying differences is a key point to remember no matter what culture you’re adapting to.
Saw this line today at the close of an entry in HBR and tried to memorize it. That’s a powerful and important statement. The author, Andy Molinksy at Brandeis, was writing about the nuances of cultural differences between US and British business behaviors. While in the US we reward strong outward expression, Brits tend to communicate with more reserved and understatement. In the US, everything is “Great!”; in the UK, you’re more likely to hear, “Fine.”
Of course, I was reading the article with a different lens, thinking about the chasm between higher ed and its significant audiences of prospective students and parents and donors.
In terms of student recruitment, higher ed is clearly casting a wider net with increased efforts to attract an international market. Now, more than ever, we need to be certain we know how to bridge cultural divides. But let’s not forget that often that chasm is no farther away than down the street from campus. Sometimes the mores of higher ed can stand in the way of effective connection and communication with the culture outside the Ivory Tower.
Colleges and universities are learning the importance of speaking with language that captures the attention of those with less exposure to our hallowed halls. Higher ed is beginning to create experiences that build relationships. Still, we seem perplexed when families aren’t clamoring to join our ranks.
I went online to read a paper that Molinsky wrote outlining a model for encouraging and equipping those who must interact in cross-cultural environments. He concludes that while an organization may desire to be more cross-culturally adept, the organization depends on individuals to manage the interactions and relationships that are vital to the organization’s success. He writes, “In order for organizations to succeed, the individuals who work on their behalf must be adept at functioning successfully in foreign cultural settings, particularly in foreign cultural interactions.”
One of our important assignments in admissions, advancement, marketing and communications offices on campus is to ensure that those professionals who represent the institution know their audiences very well and are equipped to effectively adapt language and behavior to connect with those we’re trying to convince. Let’s not assume the way we do it on campus is always attractive or understood.
Sam, Shawn and I hosted a lunch at the Granville Inn with 15 of our Denison University clients. Not everyone we work with or have worked with at Denison during that time was able to come to lunch. Nonetheless, it was a memorable gathering.
We celebrated our 25th anniversary of working together. Actually, I began work with Denison in 1986 to redesign the alumni magazine, so technically it was our 27th anniversary. We were also celebrating Vice President and Director of Admissions Perry Robinson’s 25th anniversary at Denison.
Not many of my peers have opportunity to celebrate that milestone with their clients. Twenty-five years is a remarkably long time in consulting years. We live in a world where quick fixes, in-and-out remedies and short-term engagements are the norm. The average tenure of a CMO today is 3.5 years. And with administrative shifts, client-agency relationships tend to dissolve at similar speed. So celebrating a quarter century of collaboration is more than significant.
It was great to see our Denison friends around the table and to reflect on the experiences and efforts that make our relationship so powerful. We tripped down memory lane with a ten-minute review of alumni magazines, viewbooks, posters, inaugural programs, donor books, annual fund appeals and bits of correspondence (selected from our archive of hundreds of exchanges). We have done amazing work together with even more amazing results. It’s thrilling to review what happens when smart people work together.
Putting heads together to achieve goals and conquer challenges is indeed rewarding. Today we celebrated that endeavor. More importantly, we celebrated the dynamic of putting hearts together…using our shared passion for a great cause to move an entire institution forward. We celebrated the process of building trust with one another. We celebrated the results of respectful relationships. We celebrated our friendships that working side by side has forged. Thanks Denison for making us better. Congratulations to you on your remarkable growth and achievements. Here’s to another 25—er, 27—years!
I can’t help it. I eavesdrop on interesting conversations. I try not to; but they can be so compelling. I hear words like “not for profit” or “higher ed” or the name of a college or university and they’re like magnets for my ears. I’m particularly non-resistant to the dialog between Millennials. I’m still learning their language and mindsets, so I try to practice understanding whenever I can. I haven’t resorted to “Please speak in Millennial so I can practice” yet like I do with Italians in Italy about their beautiful language. So for now I just eavesdrop and hope I’m not discovered. Espionage can be so delicate.
This morning I was in Starbucks near the capitol in Washington, D.C. I was reading email and sending texts but then I heard, “need experience” and “any openings at all” and I knew I was seated next to a recent college grad who was chatting with a barely older window of opportunity. As much as I could quickly decipher, Barely Older worked for an NFP and Recent Grad wanted a way into a position. If that weren’t enough to grip my attention, Barely Older uttered, “We’re all about creating a Movement” and it took every ounce of discipline not to just rest my head in my fist and stare. He went on to say that the unnamed NFP’s mission and vision were all focused on creating this Movement (Isn’t this awful that I can tell you details about the conversation? I’m a listener by profession and darn good at investigation, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.). As Barely Older envisioned the future of his organization and the success of the Movement, Recent Grad’s enthusiasm showed in her inflections. (Okay, then I had to look and her eyes were dancing as she leaned forward.)
I started thinking about how often I’ve heard people talk about starting a Movement. Nobody’s satisfied to just work out a mission. Nobody wants to just be part of doing the work it takes to achieve goals. We want company. We want to enlist an army. We want others to share our passions. I love the energy and fire that represents. We need Millennials to lead us forward. We need people who can lead a Movement.
It’s possible that “Movement” is just an expression of the times. Maybe someday we’ll look back on that word like we do now with “groovy.” Still, the spirit of that expression reminds me very much of a time that seems long ago when my friends and I were “Revolution”-izing anything we could wrap our arms around. And we shared that same energy, spirit and passion I heard in Starbucks this morning. I started thinking about what we really Revolutionized. I suppose we moved the needle a bit. I’m hoping that those engaged in Movements will take us farther. I’m going to practice using that word in a sentence.
Without a clear vision, you won’t know where you are going. Without a clear mission, you won’t know why you are on the journey. Without understanding your values, you won’t know how to get to your destination.
If what you say and what you do don’t align, you have to change. You have two choices:
A. If you’re really happy with what you do, change what you say to match that.
B. If you’re really happy with what you say you are, change what you do to match that.
You need to be brave, but it’s simple. Really.
Even when you are great, you don’t always win the trophy. But you won’t know how great you are against a bigger team unless you get out on the field and give it everything you’ve got. There are lots of ways to measure winning. The morning after the national championship, the Irish are still Fighting. Coherence is being who you are.
The mark of a good conference can be measured by the ideas you take away that not only stick with you, but keep you ruminating. Last week’s AMA Higher Ed Symposium is a great case in point. This year’s Symposium seemed one of the best in my opinion. And a couple of nuggets I heard at the gathering keep festering in my thoughts.
One of them came from Jeffrey Selingo, Editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. He was giving his national book tour presentation on “The Value Gap,” denoting his tremendously engaging data indicating the tremendously differing perceptions about higher ed from internal and external audiences. One of the measures has to do with the ratings provosts give their institutions compared with the ratings of the public on the performance of that institution. Not surprisingly, college administrators are more pleased with performance than the general public. Hence, the gap. The ever-widening gap.
“There’s no reward in higher ed for being distinctive,” admitted Selingo. Reward comes from being more like Harvard (or the #1 ranked university of the year). To be different, to veer from the path of likemindedness requires a high degree of risk-taking.
If everyone tries to be Harvard, however, that means we must not be trying very hard to be terrific. How many Harvards do we need? How many can we sustain? And is Harvard the best option for everyone? And if everyone is another Harvard eventually, why don’t we just have a huge Harvard franchise? A “strategic vision” focused on “more and better” only further commoditizes higher education—and antagonizes the public by not delineating noticeable differences.
Where does the license to ignore marketing principles come from? Whatever bureau grants those should be cut from the federal budget.
We’ve all heard a faculty member or administrator say of their institution, “we’re the Harvard of the (Midwest, South, West, Christian Colleges).” And we’ve all raised our eyebrows in response. In fact, I wrote a white paper a few years ago with a helpful worksheet to show how “unlike” your institution may be from Harvard. Let’s start with that $32 billion endowment, shall we?
I’ve had two conversations with prospective clients this week who have told me the same thing: “We don’t know who we are.” In the race to become bigger, better and stronger, it’s easy for an institution to lose it’s way—and identity. Fast growth can easily outpace the ability for audiences, both internal and external, to maintain accurate perceptions. It’s hard to keep up with the truth when it changes so quickly. And, for education, these are fast times.
When you are feeling as though the earth is shifting beneath your marketing feet, then it may be a good time to dig down into it a bit. I just saw a photograph from Dr. David Maitland, whose microscopic image of coral sand won a spot in Nikon’s annual competition. The remarkable photo shows the composition of sand including the beautiful—though invisible to our naked eye—foraminifera, tiny amoebas surrounded by their own shells called tests. These microscopic particles are used by researchers to help us get to know our own evolutionary path and illuminate the history of our planet. But you have to comb the ocean floor to find these lovely wonders.
The sustaining value of pursuing the path of coherence shows up early when we answer the first satellite question, “who are we?” and start digging up the stories that make our clients so amazing. Your institution’s history will help you understand who you are today.
It’s easy to get to the year of your founding and get the picture that you’ve been around a while. But even if you’re barely an antique, your history will enliven and give meaning to your story today.
Comb your “ocean floor” and discover the tiny molecules of information that have shaped your DNA; it may give clues to what you’ve become. Understand that seemingly small incidents, people and relationships may have significant bearing on the institution you’ve become. These discoveries may help anchor your evolving story:
- Who founded your institution?
- Why did they see a need for your college?
- What was happening at the time that made your founding year important?
- What was happening in your region/state/the world at the time that warranted your university’s launch?
- Who were the significant players and decision makers at the time?
- As your institution has grown, can you chart the “family tree” of leadership?
- Why were big decisions made? What shaped those turns in direction?
- Who are the leading donors in your history? How did large gifts influence your institution’s growth?
- What has been the role of state government in your growth? What were the needs and goals legislation was mandating?
- What hints of your historic path still show up? What values are still present?
Dive deep, dig deep and scoop up a bit of your history to understand who you are. You may have just lost a bit of perspective or sight of what makes you so exceptional today.
From my experiences on dozens of campuses each year, I’d guess that most IA professionals feel that their greatest achievement is to tell their great stories to alumni, parents, donors, friends, legislators and prospects, and to help these constituents discover how their respective institutions relate to them.
But I don’t think that’s the job of IA.
The purpose of institutional advancement is to discover—listen for—the great stories of our alumni, parents, donors, friends, legislators and prospects, and to figure out how those amazing stories relate to the institution.
That’s the way for a college or university to advance in the direction of its goals.