This is the seventh post in the series on Academic Strategic Enrollment Management.
No one can achieve and sustain long-term enrollment and fiscal health with mandates or short-term, reactive, quick fix initiatives.
Strategic Position is defined as the sum of the competitive characteristics an institution or program possesses when compared to other institutions or programs in the global learning ecosystem or specific market segments. The concept comprises both marketing and branding and extends the efforts of competitiveness to a holistic, proactive, cohesive process defining, developing and implementing a strategy of sustainability. The roots of strategic positioning lie in the academic master plan and the academic culture and curriculum it defines, builds and sustains. The most effective enrollment management strategies are designed to build and sustain strategic market position. The process begins with institutional strategy emanating from mission and vision.
The concept of strategic position is built around assessing where an institution is with respect to what prospective students are looking for in an educational opportunity and what other providers in its competitive sphere offer. The assessment of strategic position is informed through at least six lenses.
- The demographics lens examines enrollment strategy and performance against geographic scope, reach and yield. Scope assesses and defines target populations, reach details tactics to engage target populations and yield measures enrollment performance.
- The learning outcomes lens examines the metrics and perceptions of the benefit and value added through the learning experience.
- The academic programs lens examines the scope and focus of the academic program mix requiring an evaluation of saturation and opportunity against market dynamics.
- The research and scholarship lens examines the comparative scholarly performance of the institution against competitors.
- The employment domains and discipline spheres examine the requirements of employers, contemporary realities in academic communities and the performance and success of alums.
- The community of practice lens examines academic strategies tied to emerging trans-disciplinary communities of practice that require a collaborative academic background to join.
Achieving strategic position requires the institution to define the specific parameters that position the institution in the global learning marketplace. Enrollment managers work as partners in developing strategies to achieve and to maintain the competitive position of the institution within the global learning market. The learning marketplace is dynamic, and those dynamics change over time and within each competitive domain an institution is recruits. It is important to anchor recruitment campaigns in strategies that align the academic portfolio with market parameters.
Parameters Driving Strategic Position
Strategic position as a conceptual approach recognizes the confluence of factors, forces and elements that contribute to the competitiveness of the institution in the global learning market. Examples of parameters driving strategic position.
Defines the actual and targeted geographic representation of enrolled students. Expressed as percent distributions by defined geographic regions (e.g. zip code, county, region, state, country). Provides a framework to align enrollment targets and performance with population distributions and dynamics.
- Why is this important?
Geographic mix defines the raw suspect pool that yields prospects and eventually enrollments. If the geographic mix is too narrow the pool is not large enough to achieve or sustain enrollments. If the mix is unfocused (such as international by country) or undeclared then, the services required for student success may not be available. Geographic mix also helps determine who the competitors are.
An urban independent institution with numerous competing academic neighbors and an enrollment profile so localized it was termed line of sight recruitment experienced steady erosion in enrollments. Their initial proposed geographic mix strategy involved a three-year focus to develop the capacity to expand to contiguous states then to a twelve state region. In addition, because of well-developed affiliations a limited international effort was also recommended. The strategies in this case were directly linked to specific programs of study.
Program of Study Mix
Defines the array of academic programs and services an institution offers to the population it serves. Provides a framework to align credentials with economic, social, political, and technological challenges and opportunities.
- Why is this important?
The mix of programs and disciplines ultimately define the profile of the institution to the learning marketplace. Program of study clusters can also be used to position schools, colleges, and departments in communities of interest and practice. The goal is to generate a following among influencers and a constant buzz in the social media regarding programmatic opportunities. Institutionally focused general marketing while necessary is insufficient alone to sustain healthy enrollments. Program level marketing must be developed and sustained.
A college of art and design offered a limited number of programs of study. The growth strategy involved adding four programs of study in developing the first stage of enrollment futures strategy. The programs rather than being selected from interest areas among faculty were selected to build a cohesive strategic position in the market. For example, a Business of Art and Design program was developed in order to emphasize the economic value of art and design and highlight the role of the institutions programs in producing practicing artists and designers. Geographic mix was then considered. The same institution relied heavily upon in-state enrollment with a geographic mix of 77% in state, 20% other 49 states (but predominantly six other states) and 3% international. Is this a healthy distribution?
Employment Domains and Discipline Spheres
Defines existing and emerging disciplines and employment sectors and opportunities. Provides a framework for connecting and aligning structured disciplines with economic opportunities.
- Why is this important?
The linkage between academic disciplines and preparation for employment within defined economic sectors is of extremely high value when developing academic strategy. It is often deeply misunderstood. Every academic credential needs to embed employability knowledge and skills into the curriculum. The narrative describing the curriculum must make the case that the curriculum is up-to-date, relevant, and content and experience rich.
A Universities’ Liberal Arts programs recognized they needed curriculum revitalization to invigorate enrollment. The process was guided by the notion that a well-constructed liberal arts undergraduate degree could be argued and proven to be the perfect credential for this century. The core was reimagined to include thematic essential employability competencies that were shaped into curricular experiences. Faculty focused on:
- Quantitative and qualitative reasoning and decision-making
- Effective communication
- Global cultural and political awareness
- A strong sense of self and an understanding of self in relation to community
- Basic economic structures and dynamics
- Political systems and governance
These were embedded into the curricular experience and designed to be assessed.
Community of Practice Focus
Defines emerging need or problem based communities. Provides a framework for understanding and aligning multiple programs and disciplines with emerging global needs and opportunities.
- Why is this important?
Communities of Practice represent self-identifying contemporary clusters of individuals with diverse knowledge, skills and credentials coming together to address an important issue, problem or need. They are very fertile ground to identify, shape and develop new curriculum. The community of practice lens is also a great way to approach existing curriculum revitalization and market realignment.
A School of Management had developed and was preparing to launch a program of study in fraud and forensics. The preliminary design was primarily accounting in nature. The scope of practice was narrowly focused. By engaging the communities of practice that included judiciary, law enforcement, and financial sectors in a structural review of the preliminary curriculum significant changes were made. As a result of the participation, the Communities of Practice members populated the initial program cohorts and augmented faculty expertise.
Defines the knowledge and skills acquired form engagement in an academic program of study or learning environment. Provides a framework for mapping outcomes, developing narrative and leveraging academic value.
- Why is this important?
Teaching and learning are the heart and soul of an academic institution. Differentiating an institution based upon learning achievement, teaching quality, learning environment, and educational value-added is seldom attempted and difficult to achieve. Focusing upon learning outcomes includes completion rates, placement rates of graduates, and rankings and ratings by employers. It also structurally can be used as a guide to revitalizing the curricular design model.
Recognizing that roughly half of the prospects searching for their first enrollment opportunity are undecided as to the major they are interested initial strategies were developed to launch a common first year experience for undecided majors. The curriculum was designed to provide a strong academic experience flowing directly into more than a dozen majors. It was designed without a time to degree extension penalty being required (similar to the Liberal Arts example above except within a human services curricular cluster) regardless of the major selected within the cluster.
Research and Scholarship
Defines the knowledge focus and foundation of an academic organization and its relationship to the global academic and knowledge ecosystem. Provides a framework for innovation, focus, and leveraging knowledge and discipline expertise.
- Why is this important?
Research and scholarship anchor the academic reputation of the institution. The higher the demonstrable quality of research and scholarship the higher the perceived value of the learning experience.
An urban universities’ professional school sought to increase their rank and strategic position among their peers and enhance both research and faculty and student recruitment. A review of the research scholarship platform revealed more than 50 centers, institutes, and laboratories. As the school designed a new facility a comprehensive focus resulted in re-conceptualizing the organization, integration and support of the research and scholarship functions.
These examples illustrate in a nutshell, what we mean by taking a strategic position approach. The path to developing effective strategies can appear daunting and overwhelming. In order to construct meaningful strategy, we treat the view through these six lenses from the current institutional position as vectors. The concept of vectors adds two defining characteristics to the view through the lens, direction and magnitude. Note the primacy the curriculum and the academic portfolio play in developing strategic position. A well-developed strategically focused Master Academic Plan provides the best foundation. The use of the vector view is a powerful lens providing a focus for both the Master Academic Plan and developing Strategic Position.
The vector view in figure 2 provides sufficient detail (an early draft and not the more exhaustive view) to synthesize cohesive and comprehensive strategies for the future of the enterprise. Each element on the six lens lines is in a state of change; increasing or decreasing, expanding or contracting, changing rapidly or slowly, either in growth or decline, is becoming more popular or more essential or is becoming less so. These six lens inform the development of the Master Academic Plan and help identify candidates for bump strategies, or long term development. They inform the status of the institutions current strategic position and provide insight and opportunities for future development.
Such a view can plug back into an initial strategic position assessment using the SRS Method to develop a clear and concise translation and guide Strategic Enrollment Management strategies.
Hopefully this Strategic Position approach has provided deeper insight into the intricate and detailed elements involved in constructing a comprehensive competitive position in the emerging global learning marketplace. A colleague commenting on this approach quipped “Wouldn’t it be nice if this were much simpler? Send a few Social Media messages, even put up a billboard on the freeway or placards in buses and by golly the enrollments would overflow. In a perfect world, they would all be eager, well prepared, well-mannered, full pay students that just do as they are told and graduate on time.” Pardon a quote from a contemporary commercial—“that’s not how any of this works.” It is complex; efforts take time and persistence, and results (not wishes) must be designed into strategies and initiatives. In the end curriculum drives enrollment, enrollment drives revenue and revenue drives everything else. That means ultimately strategies emanate from the curriculum (see “It’s the Curriculum Stupid”) and the academic enterprise.