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Four Qualities of an Outstanding School

Change is in the wind when it comes to higher education in America. And it is changing the way both schools and students navigate a post-secondary education.

Let’s start with tuition. Recently, The Wall Street Journal carried an article about how U.S. college tuition is growing at the slowest pace in decades. Seriously. On the heels of a nearly 400 percent increase over the past 30 years, higher education institutions are finally putting the brakes on the cost of education.

This is good news for the middle class who’s experienced both anxiety and a surge of student debt just to pay for the experience. I have written before how my college experience was so different. When I went off to college in 1978, a student could work a part-time job during the year and a summer job to cover the cost of tuition. There is no way that could happen today.

Then, there is competition. The number of colleges in the U.S. declined by nearly 6% between the past academic year and the year before (according to a new count by the federal government), and the rate of closings is accelerating. Colleges are having a tough time dealing with the current economy and the number of choices a high school graduate has as they prepare for a career. More and more of Generation Z are rejecting the four-year liberal arts universities and choosing less expensive alternatives. So, schools are closing.

Finally, there is the sheer size of the “traditional student” population. The Millennial Generation was the largest population in U.S. history at 80 million strong, giving schools a powerful customer base. It was bigger than the “Baby Boom” population, due to families having more children and due to immigration. The pendulum has swung, however, for the younger population. Generation Z makes up about 59 million kids, making the customer base for colleges significantly smaller. Enrollment in colleges has dropped the last two years and schools are scrambling to differentiate themselves.

So How Do Schools Set Themselves Apart?

Just like healthcare, businesses and non-profits, schools must differentiate themselves from their counterparts. People want a choice, and they are gaining more and more options in education. So, how do educators stand out?

I just finished spending a day investing in faculty, advisors, coaches, staff and students at Purdue University. Unlike so many other universities, their enrollment is up and has been the last two years. Intelligent students fill the residence halls and classrooms there, and I was impressed with how the school handled so many elements of the college experience. I have summarized my thoughts in the word: “PURE.” A school is PURE when they recognize what they do well and focus on it. They don’t imitate everyone else, but pursue what makes them different and better.

Think PURE:

P – Personal

Although Purdue has some 41,000 students enrolled, I saw almost everyone interacting in an extremely personal way. Staff and faculty knew the students. In fact, faculty are involved in residential communities to ensure the educational experience isn’t limited to a classroom. I saw teachers and students standing in a field of corn, assessing the growth in a relational fashion. Students love this personal touch. Far too often, colleges are huge and impersonal. Students tell me they feel like a number and a quota, and often they are. As a professor, you’ll be different if you’re relational and personal.

U – Unique

As I mentioned above, Purdue has determined who and what they are and have chosen to focus on it. Engineering makes up a large portion of their student body and reputation, but they aren’t merely a bunch of geeks and geezers (young students and older faculty). They are melding experiential learning with four generations of staff, faculty and students on campus to ensure the learning experience matches what students will enter in their career. They are not trying to be M.I.T. or Georgia Tech or Texas Tech, which are fine institutions themselves. Purdue has resolved to play to their unique strengths.

R – Real

While I met some impressive staff and students on campus, I was continually aware they are very genuine people. The adults haven’t let their degrees and pedigrees get in the way of being real with the students. Staff talks about everyday “stuff” with them, and I got the feeling the students actually felt they could talk to the adults on campus, not just about grades and exams, but about daily struggles they might be enduring. This is what the original intent of education was at Harvard and Yale. It was real life, not just theory. This differentiates a school today.

E – Excellent

Whatever you decide to do as an educator or a school, to set yourself apart, you must do it with excellence. Make the decision on your culture, your strengths and your offerings, then do it better than anyone around you. As I sat down to lunch in one of Purdue’s many dining halls, I could tell they had made a decision to be great. And while they are known more for academics than athletics, even their athletic department is experiencing a shot in the arm this football season. To get the attention of a Generation Z student, you’ve got to be outstanding.

Here’s to every school differentiating themselves for the sake of the students.


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