With its theme of “Thinking Differently,” this year’s Summer Seminar, which The Lawlor Group co-hosts annually with Hardwick-Day, was destined to start the wheels turning in the minds of senior enrollment and marketing professionals from private colleges and universities throughout the nation. Over the course of two days, participants heard from eight speakers who shared their insights about higher education marketplace issues by approaching the topic from several angles:
- Digital Technology—Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life Project offered some tips for thinking differently about how teenagers use electronic devices and digital platforms. For example, think of the smartphone as a “leap-frogging device,” because it allows teens to bypass using a computer. Think of Twitter more as an “information utility” than as a social network, because the communication is not synchronous (i.e., “followers” don’t have to be “followed” and vice versa). Think of mobile as “the needle” and social networks as “the thread,” because one is a tool for utilizing the other. And Kristina Halvorson, author of Content Strategy for the Web, likewise urged participants to think differently about how they share their messages, stories, and information, because “the linear publishing mentality is messing us up.” She said new skills in content creation are now required in order to make both the substance and the delivery of content be strategic, and not simply reactive.
- Behavioral Science—Charles Duhigg, New York Times staff writer and author of The Power of Habit, shared a way to think differently: “Once you learn to see the world as a collection of habits, it changes everything you see.” He discussed how identifying “keystone habits,” which embody values and create a culture, can set off other habits within an organization or environment to influence behavior. And Nicole Stephens, a social and cultural psychology professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, highlighted how important changing higher education administrators’ assumptions can be when it comes to the academic success of first-generation students. For example, most bridge programs assume the problems that must be fixed lie within the students, versus in the institutions themselves. But actually, cultural norms of “independence” and “individualism” within the institutions could be barriers that college marketers unwittingly signal, considering that first-generation students are more likely to have an “interdependence” mindset.
- Disruptive Attitudes—John Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), traced trends in first-year student survey responses from the past 45 years to show how today’s prospective college students are thinking differently. Most significantly, increasing numbers of them are thinking of college as a gateway to be able to get a better job, to get training for a specific career, and to be able to make more money. Jeff Selingo, vice president and editorial director at The Chronicle of Higher Education, suggested thinking of the higher education sector as actually being in the information delivery business. He warned that we tend to overestimate the speed of change but underestimate its significance, and he predicted that “the tyranny of the degree” is about to be broken by alternative credentialing models. And Andrew Delbanco, author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, urged participants to think differently about the narrative of progress. When it comes to educating students, “some things are best done the old-fashioned way,” he argued, and can’t be improved by economies of scale. “There are some questions you can’t subject to scientific experimentation,” he said, so among his “time-tested methodologies” for addressing them are the lecture and lateral learning (that is, having students learn from each other).
- Acting Differently—The closing speaker was Kevin Winge, executive director of the non-profit organization Project Open Hand (which provides home-delivered meals, groceries, and nutrition counseling to people living with HIV/AIDS or breast cancer), and he stressed the importance of not just thinking differently, but also acting and leading differently. Sharing some of his personal and professional experiences, he pointed out that doing the right thing takes courage, because it may require “throwing the rule book (judiciously) out,” and always requires looking for the opportunity in a challenge.
Judging from some of the participants’ Twitter reactions (samplings of the backchannel conversation from Day One and Day Two are posted at Storify), everyone took away something different from the speakers’ presentations—which, of course, was as it should be, given the theme!
During the course of the past month, we have consistently heard about the realities of this year’s higher education marketplace. The results for colleges and universities, as measured by deposited students, are mixed at best, and in many cases dismal. In some quarters, there still remains a naïve outlook on reality and a slumbering sense of urgency about dealing with a different marketplace.
But at the same time, we know of private colleges really being different and seeing genuine, positive results. Smart. The necessity to not only think, but also act and lead differently is here. Now is the time to be innovative, relevant, and responsive. The art and science of marketing—yes, real marketing, and not just the uninformed perception of promotion as being the sole purview of marketing—can make a difference today. But it requires dynamic leadership and organizational intent. It requires institutional purpose and a collective sense of self. Most importantly, future success is dependent on the demise of redundant thinking and imitation. It is time to think, act, and lead differently. Now that is a distinctive idea worth considering.
In the news
CBS News highlighted “7 Things Colleges Worry About,” quoting a whitepaper published by The Lawlor Group and authored by Jon McGee, vice president for planning and public affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. In Disruptive Adaptation (.pdf), McGee identified the demographic, unemployment, family income, home value, and family debt and savings trends that are acting as forces of disruption that college and university administrators must adapt to.
Did you know?
As measured by median net worth, U.S. families lost more than a third of their wealth from 2007 to 2010.
Source: Federal Reserve (.pdf)