A few decades ago, colleges could be relatively confident that their programs would fill up simply by existing. It’s not quite that easy in today’s competitive market. Students are savvy consumers who want to be sure they’re pursuing a degree that prepares them for career success. They critically evaluate all their options before committing to a program.

The onus is on higher education institutions to articulate that they provide real value. While most schools recognize this, problems arise when institutions forget to consider how the benefits they provide differ from ones their competitors offer.

“There are a lot of value propositions for your programs, but not all of them are unique in the marketplace,” explains Amber Arnseth, associate director of marketing strategy at Collegis Education.

The real key to capturing prospective students’ attention is differentiating your institution from the many competitors. Before exploring how to go about that, it’s worth identifying the distinction between differentiation and value propositioning.

Differentiation vs. value proposition: What’s the difference?

These terms are closely related, but it’s essential for colleges and universities to understand the distinction. In a sense, value propositions focus on students while differentiators take other schools into consideration.

“Do you see anyone else in the market doing the same thing or messaging it in the same way?” Arnseth poses. “If not, I would distinguish that as a differentiated feature as opposed to just being part of your value proposition.”

It’s the difference between simply saying that a program will ready students for a particular career path and explaining that it will ready students for that career path in less time and with a high student satisfaction rate. This example, you’ll notice, touches on the types of things that students value most in a program. That matters, because simply being different isn’t enough.

“You can have something unique, but if it’s not compelling, then it’s not really helpful in attracting students,” Arnseth says.

Identifying what sets your school and programs apart

It’s worth mentioning that differentiation can occur at both the institution and program levels. The distinguishing brand features will span every offering, Arnseth explains, while program differentiation is specific to individual credential pathways. It’s also important to recognize that students are becoming more interested in searching for information related to specific degrees than institutions. This means that schools can often make more of an impact by focusing on program differentiation.

Determining exactly what sets one program apart from others can be difficult, so try to put yourself in your students’ shoes. Some of the most impactful value drivers are affordability – students are becoming increasingly concerned about the cost of higher education – and alignment with in-demand careers. But true differentiation in these areas is often nearly impossible. In many cases, you need to prove these points just to have a seat at the table.

“If your program isn’t affordable, students may just move on,” Arnseth explains.

But there are other ways to differentiate. Consider how a particular program at your institution provides personal value for students in the form of support services, fun aspects of campus life or personal development opportunities. Arnseth points out these are less common among online programs.

Institutions can also highlight program differentiation by showing how it provides career-related value. Perhaps there are graduate outcomes like exam pass rates or job placement rates among graduates. Also consider that not every program enjoys such clear success metrics. In these instances, it’s important to get creative in finding quantifiable ways to show value.

“Not every program has a corresponding test that you need to take before you can become a professional in the field, but there are certain quantifiable metrics you can get like student satisfaction and employer satisfaction rates,” Arnseth offers. “But you have to be proactive about surveying and getting feedback.”

What about new programs that don’t yet have graduates to reference? Arnseth suggests highlighting how accomplished your faculty are and whether industry professionals were involved in the curriculum development process.

While it’s typically more related to institutional differentiation, speaking to inspirational value can also resonate with students. An institution rooted in social justice that offers a degree in political science, for instance, has the opportunity to tie that program back to their larger mission. Making a personal connection with prospective students can be powerful.

Finding your focus

Research plays a significant role in determining which elements set your programs apart. You need to keep a pulse on the market by taking a look at what competitors are doing. And bear in mind that your competition isn’t necessarily just in your immediate area.

“It’s not always who’s in your backyard,” Arnseth explains. “You need to know what’s happening on a broader national scale.” This is becoming increasingly important as certain large institutions continue to grow their market share.

Communicating differentiators across departments is also important for maintaining consistency. The admissions and marketing teams need to be on the same page to ensure students aren’t receiving mixed messages. And to that point, remember that students are the ones you’re ultimately serving. A value proposition that includes key points of differentiation isn’t going to have an impact if it doesn’t resonate with prospects.

“You have to have a mission and something you stand for, but it also has to be meaningful to the student,” Arnseth offers.

Stand out from the pack

Differentiation isn’t optional in higher education today – students simply have too many options. Successful schools are the ones that are able to clearly and concisely explain what they offer that other institutions don’t using specific information.

But communicating key points of differentiation is just one piece of your overall enrollment growth strategy. It’s also important to connect with students on an emotional level and leverage data whenever possible.

Learn more higher education insights by taking a look at some select clips from the American Marketing Association’s interview with Collegis Education Chief Marketing Officer Brad Frank.