Sweet Briar

For students, faculty, staff and alumni, news that Sweet Briar College is shutting down is heartbreaking. For single-sex and coed colleges nationwide that share Sweet Briar’s small, rural, liberal arts profile, it’s a warning.

The shrinking pool of college applicants intensifies competition among schools that aren’t Ivy League, state flagships or well-known private colleges. Kids who do apply are keenly aware of the tight job market and often suspect rural locales which, however charming, don’t offer much in the way of internships. And the cost of going to college keeps rising.

It’s a thorny environment.

This past spring, Harvard business school professor Clayton Christensen predicted “that as many as half of the more than 4,000 universities and colleges in the U.S. may fail in the next 15 years.”

What to do about it is the subject of a great deal of serious thought by serious men and women in the academic world and elsewhere. This isn’t the place to second-guess their efforts, except to say this: branding is critical.

Consider how powerful brand is to the sale of a $5 jug of laundry detergent, a $500 phone or even a $25,000 automobile. Now think about how important it is to differentiate a nearly $125,000 investment – the average cost of tuition and fees to attend a private four-year college, according to the College Board. Other than a home, it is likely the biggest expense (and debt-load) that any family will incur. And likely it will be one of the most life influencing decisions – for better or worse – any individual will make.

Yet most of the college and university brands in the marketplace are largely undifferentiated from one another.

For a large percent of the nation’s colleges and universities, failure to articulate a compelling, differentiated and authentic brand makes it that much harder to connect with prospects, nurture them and ultimately enroll them for four revenue-producing years.

If your institutional survival depends on making next year’s class a bumper crop, make sure your brand is working as hard as it can.