I remember it like it was yesterday.

A board member, in response to a presentation I had made on the major issues facing higher education, asked, “Will being more strategic help us?”

The answer depends on how you define strategy.

If your definition of strategy is largely expansionist (we need to offer more programs and be in more geographies with the hope of attracting more students), then the answer is no.

Unfortunately, many schools have been enticed by this definition of strategy. And this is, I suspect, why so many schools are struggling. By offering the same basic array of programs and experiences as their competitors, these schools have blurred their image and imperiled their cash flow.

While there are many definitions of strategy, I have always resonated with this one—Strategy has but one goal: It is to differentiate your institution from your competitors in ways that target audiences value.

This definition of strategy revolves around the words “focus” and “relevance” and “compelling differentiation.” Let me explain.

Focus means doing fewer things, but doing the things you choose to do with great aplomb. Instead of being wide and shallow, you are narrow and deep. You commit more resources to fewer things of clear value to students and thereby increase quality.

Relevance means that strategic decisions are made in tandem with the students and donors that pay for the strategy and not just the faculty and staff who execute that strategy. Poorly led colleges too often make decisions in isolation from the marketplace. This almost always leads to disaster.

Compelling differentiation means you are being and doing something of clear interest to the marketplace—students, donors, the media—and it is something that your competitors cannot replicate.

When you have one or more points of compelling differentiation, you can charge more and or increase selectivity.[1] You are a market driver.

When you offer an experience that students do not find compelling, you are no longer driving the market, you are being driven by it. As a result, your discount rate increases. A strategy that rests on focus, relevance, and compelling differentiation requires tough decisions. However, once these decisions are made the benefits of these decisions—institutional vibrancy and success—quickly become obvious.

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