Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tier Jumping: How Do Colleges Do It?

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.


Andrew said...

Congratulations to your client, and to you for helping them make the leap to Tier 1. You mention that this was a long-term ambition. How long-term was it, and how long have the leaders of that institution been working toward making this leap? Can you share, in a broad sense, how they redirected resources toward this goal? I assume this was part of the campus's marketing strategy and took some effort to raise awareness among peers. (The peer assessment portion of U.S. News' rankings always sticks in my craw. It seems a lot of campuses spend a lot of money for the sole purpose of trying to gain higher scores from other presidents and provosts, and much of that money could perhaps be used in other, more productive ways.)

Also, how great a leap was this? To move from No. 30 to No. 25 doesn't sound like it's as great a challenge as, say, moving from No. 50.

Like a lot of higher ed marketers, I have a love-hate relationship with U.S. News. I've seen various administrations on our campus wring their hands over our place in the rankings, and just recently I completed a review of how we've fared over the past five years to see what, if anything, our campus can do to move the needle and move forward.

Great, thought-provoking post.

Andrea Jarrell said...

Really great questions. Here are some answers. First off, I think every college/university has a love-hate relationship with the rankings. But when you see a significant rise it feels good and it does have an impact. I know one school that went from #3 to #1 one year and even that made a huge difference in admissions.
I don’t think rising in the rankings should be a goal in and of itself and I abhor the manipulations that I’ve heard some institutions use to ratchet up their rank. (I haven't seen this myself.) What I do think is important is the real work of advancing an institution that then can be evidenced in the rankings. So when I say my client had that long-term ambition perhaps it’s a little misleading – the long-term ambition was to be truly better and to gain recognition for that higher quality. We can all poke holes in the U.S. News rankings but they are something the public and peer institutions look to (as meaningful or meaningless as an Oscar). So the college definitely talked about a rise in the rankings as being one measure of knowing that they had “arrived” someplace new but that wasn't a goal in and of itself.
To your questions about timing and degree of rise in the rankings – this college has been “on the move” since 1990 when a new president took over. They really started hitting their stride in the late 1990s through today. They’ve risen from the second tier to the top tier and more than 10 spots up – something some in their community thought could never be done. And, please note, I’m not taking credit for the rise at all – the college is what is through incredible leadership on a lot of levels. They weren’t even my client during this period.
In terms of resources, in addition to the needs you would imagine (financial aid and faculty endowments) they had the vision to enhance what has always made them special and to see what had been missing or amiss for a long time and address those things at last. There was no lobbying or campaign among peers – I think the biggest change was in selectivity. So that’s why I started there – they needed the selectivity to make the change but they could never have gotten there without a distinctive program and that selectivity and distinctiveness takes money. Thanks again for your thoughtful response.