We often wonder why colleges and universities spend so much time identifying and then communicating their distinctive competencies.

We wonder if this is time well spent because most distinctive competencies are, well, not that distinctive. Further, distinctive competencies focus on how you are different from your competitors and do not consider whether that competency is of interest to the marketplace.

Instead, we believe, colleges and universities should focus on competitive advantages.

A competitive advantage, for those not familiar with the term, occurs when a college or university develops an attribute or combination of attributes that allow it to outperform its competitors in the areas of:

• Student recruiting (Program offerings, star faculty, unique facilities, financial aid)
• Fundraising
• Attracting public and media attention
• Efficiencies that allow for lower cost
• Attracting talent (faculty and staff)

A competitive advantage generally has three specific tests:

• Does it differentiate you from your competitors?
• Does it create strong value for your customers?
• Is it difficult for competitors to copy?

Does it differentiate you from your competitors? Cornell College’s “One-Course-At-A-Time” immediately distinguishes it from other privates on the quarter or semester schedule.

Does it create strong value for your customers? The ability to rent textbooks from the University of Wisconsin—Platteville is of keen interest to budget-minded students because renting is less expensive than buying.

Is it difficult for competitors to copy? The decision by the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science to offer an Engineering Entrepreneurship program draws on its deep investment in engineering; an investment that would be difficult for other schools to replicate.

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