One of my clients recently fulfilled a long-term ambition: jumping to the top tier of the U.S. News rankings. Being part of the top 25 reminds me of the difference actors talk about after they win an Oscar for the first time. It doesn't make their lives magically perfect. The general public isn't always even aware of the win. But their peers pay them more respect and they get offered more and better roles.
Similarly, I have spoken with college presidents whose institutions have made a jump to or within the top tier. They say flat out it has made all the difference – they get more respect from peers and feeder high schools (sometimes begrudgingly) and they have more and better students knocking at their door.
So how does an institution tier jump? If I look at the clients I know firsthand and the institutions I’ve watched from afar it seems to come down to a simple but hard-to-achieve formula:
Selectivity: As one president told me, we just stopped taking some students. That made some of our alumni unhappy and it made some of our feeder high schools unhappy. For that particular institution the gamble paid off because of the next ingredient – money.
Money: At the risk of stating the obvious, to be selective, institutions need the resources to provide significant financial aid, to attract top faculty, and to build distinctive programs. As a leader of another college that has made the jump told me, “None of this could have happened if it weren’t for very strategic donors who saw the importance of investing their time, money and energy in strengthening areas of the college that would move us forward and make us what we are today."
Abandoning Generic: The tier-jumping college mentioned above used to talk internally about being a college on the move. But how did it know where it was going? How did it attract and capitalize on strategic philanthropy to arrive in the top tier? By abandoning the idea of competing on generic excellence.
If there is a formula for tier jumping this is certainly the trickiest part. Being among the top tier of colleges or universities bestows generic prestige and reputation on an institution. But in order to earn that generic reputation for excellence, the first step is carving out a specialty. As one college president who has been at a top tier liberal arts institution and is now at another liberal arts college trying to make a tier leap says, “Every successful institution has an identity, brand if you will – something readily identifiable that marks what is unique to it. For us, that is a combination of mission and place (the college is in a very dynamic city). That brand is, in part, a way to become known and to attract interest from students and from donors. In both these areas, the efforts we have made to connect mission to place have already paid off.”
As this president knows, while students and donors are essential to making a transformational leap in prestige and reputation, successful branding is the springboard that comes first. Next week, I will be talking with my tier-jumping client about how their generic seal of approval from US News is one more element in what must continue to be a very non-generic brand.