We have argued here and elsewhere that developing institutional consensus on a value proposition is critical to success. This consensus should drive both the assessment of current programming and the development of program growth. Competition in higher education, especially in New England and the Upper Midwest, is becoming intense; and institutions cannot afford to be just another generic (comprehensive) institution. Trying to be everything to everyone will ultimately put the institution in the position of competing based on price and convenience, and that is not a strategy that will allow the institution to thrive in the long run.
An institutional value proposition is different from a mission or vision statement. My experience is that these statements tend to be aspirational and undifferentiated. From the perspective of a value proposition, an institution needs answers to the following questions:
- What makes your institution distinctive among the other institutions in your region and the country?
- When faced with the choice between you and your “overlap” institutions, what is the compelling argument for choosing you as opposed to one of them?
Thus, the value proposition focuses on how you are perceived by your constituent communities just as much as it is derived from how you think about yourself. If you can accurately assess the perceptions of your constituent communities and come to an internal consensus, you should be able to:
- Rightsize your academic programs,
- Develop a growth strategy, and
- Become a thriving brand.
How do you develop an accurate assessment of your institutional value proposition? It depends on both external and internal analyses as well as a set of internal meetings to reach consensus. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, if you don’t know where you want to get to, it doesn’t matter which way you go. It is equally difficult to plot a path forward if you don’t know where you are at the present time. We often think of the external perception of this value proposition as the institution’s brand—what does the institution offer each of its various constituent groups. A brand analysis would examine how the institution is perceived both externally and internally using external data to provide an objective picture of how the institution is perceived and internal discussions to reach a consensus articulation of these perceptions as well as a perspective on how these perceptions relate to program evaluation. These are hard questions to ask and even harder questions to answer in a manner that yields consensus. For this reason, institutions often seek external assistance in evaluating external perceptions and managing the discussion with internal constituencies.
Once you have a consensus on an institutional value proposition/brand, you can begin to evaluate your current programming and focus on areas of potential growth. Programs that do not fit the brand should be subjected to intense scrutiny. Unless these programs are highly profitable, they should be targets for elimination. If there are numerous brand inconsistent but profitable programs, it is likely that your brand analysis was flawed. Financially successful programs that fit the brand represent opportunities for growth. Furthermore, if there are gaps in your programming—areas where your brand would suggest that you have additional programming, but you don’t—these are also growth opportunities. Where does the money come from? Rightsizing your academic programming—eliminating programs that don’t fit the brand and are not financially viable—can begin to yield funds to invest in program growth.
Developing institutional consensus on an institutional value proposition is a critical prerequisite to planning for growth and success. It is not the end of the strategic positioning process for your institution, but without a clear and accepted value proposition, it is impossible to make strategic adjustments to your organization. Ultimately, hard questions about the financial viability of programs must be addressed. The answers to these questions must be framed by the institution’s value proposition. Our next blog will focus on the financial analysis of academic programs.
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