Finding Your Niche at Judson University

Recently, we heard Dr. Gene Crume, President at Judson University, give a wonderful reality check keynote at an Inside Higher Ed conference about how important it is to truly understand your market perception and reputation. So we invited him to join the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the enrollment growth importance of finding your “niche” as an institution.

Why Is Knowing Your Brand Reputation So Important?

if you want to serve your students well and align your mission and culture, then you have to develop a clear and realistic understanding of where you are in the higher education market.

Neither inflating nor underestimating your reputational position in the higher education market will prove helpful. That may be why many higher education leaders avoid talking about reputation.

“We tend to look at it (reputation) as maybe a pejorative term,” Gene said, “rather than just a clear identifier of where your institution serves.”

And your institution likely serves the majority of your students within a 100-mile radius of where it sits.

“The data tells us pretty clearly,” Gene said, “that the majority of college students and frequently online students, and I think this applies in the reputational quality as well, go to school within 100 miles of where they live.”

You need to own that 100-mile presence with your reputational quality.

Leaders tend to think they need a reputation bigger and broader than that, but nationally or internationally recognized institutions fall into a very small group.

“For the most of us,” Gene said, “we’re working with economies, geographic locations, prospective students, funders, donors, that are within our 100-mile radius. If you hone your business presence and your marketing within that 100-mile radius, you’ll be far more successful.”

How Geographic Factors Influence Brand Position

All institutions are born into a specific geographic location. Even if they’re an online entity and they have a much larger presence, they tend to get identified by where they are located on a map.

Prospective students still like knowing where the brick and mortar campus is located, even in an online environment. If you’re a residential campus like Judson, then your reputational quality is going to begin in and focus on that 100-mile geographic radius. Your fundraising success is going to be greatly impacted by that same radius, and certainly, the state you operate in will be the main driver of your lobbying efforts.

“I think a lot of times we chase national reputation, which is okay if you have one or two programs that truly can own that space,” Gene told us, “But for most of us, if we really sharpen our marketing strategies to focus on our 100-mile radius, we’ll find we’ll have a lot more success.”

The Competitive Advantage of Owning Smaller Mindshare

Not being a household name forces you to be innovative, resulting in a perpetual growth mindset.

“It’s a competitive advantage for us,” Gene said, “because Judson is a school of ‘both-and’.” We have a nationally accredited architecture program, and you cannot have an accredited architecture program without having academic excellence. At the same time, we have a wonderful, robust adult program. We also have great flexibility in our admissions requirements because we have always been seen as a school of opportunity.”

That blend gives Judson a lot of freedom to add programs that other schools may not look at because of their cultural norms around the purely academic view of their institution.

A good example is the RISE program, which stands for Road to Independent Living, Spiritual Formation and Employment. It’s a two-year certificate program for students that are intellectually differently abled. Judson can offer RISE because of the flexibility in its reputational quality.

Next-Steps Advice for Other Institutions Looking for a Reputational Reality Check

If your organization wants to understand its reputation, start with “The Parking Lot Test.” Walk out into the parking lot where your students park their vehicles, and look at the cars. Are they late model cars? Are they brand-new cars? Are they high-end luxury vehicles? Are they sport utility vehicles that have a lot of features added to them?

“You start to get an economic sense of where your reputational quality is,” Gene said. “Then look at the license plates. More than likely the majority of them are going to come from a 100-mile radius of your institution, and that will give you another sense.”

Students at most colleges aren’t coming from high end academic-achieving public or private high schools. They’re coming from a broader cross-section than that. So engage in intentional conversations about where your students are coming from and how you will meet them where they are.

“After that part of it,” Gene told us, “start looking in your student data and that will start telling you the rest of the story on their background.”

Ultimately, that should provide you with a good understanding of where your reputational quality is — without the help of US News and World Report.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Gene Crum from Judson University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.