Jul 18, 2022

Nine Attributes of High Thriving Schools and Colleges

As we brave our way through cultural division, economic uncertainty, a rapidly shifting education industry, environmental disruption, and changing consumer mindsets – the list could go on – I have been thinking a lot lately about the characteristics of the most successful schools and and colleges. In our work with clients throughout the globe, what are the attributes of the institutions that are thriving? In other words, what makes an educational organization thrive in today’s uncertain environment?

While there are numerous explanations for success, we have found that there are nine characteristics that set these schools and colleges apart. No matter the school or college, in nearly every environment or culture, they seem to possess each of these attributes as a precondition for success. Use them as a checklist for your school, college, or university and see how you stack up.

1) Clear Value Proposition

Thriving schools and colleges have a clear value proposition. They are client-centered, understanding their students and parents, what they want, and how they define success. They have identified a small number of important consumer benefits that differentiate them from their competitors, focus on them in their program development, and communicate them relentlessly to the consumers.

2) Strategic Enrollment Management and Marketing

Sustainable schools have learned how to effectively integrate the best practices of recruitment, retention, admissions, financial aid, information management, research, communications, and marketing. They have identified funding sources – from the right fit audiences and proper programs – and they know the strategic relationship between price, aid, and their consumer. They are disciplined, hire excellent staff, and have a strategic enrollment and marketing plan in place. They take the guesswork out of enrollment and have effectively leveraged this area of the institution, funding it properly and self-organizing accordingly.

3) Clear and Established Identity

Thriving schools and colleges have an institutional identity that is both remarkable and memorable. They understand who they are – and who they are not – and they long ago stopped trying to be all things to all people. They have short, memorable mission, vision, and core values statements, a mature and effective educational philosophy, and they infuse them into their promotional materials. In fact, their promotion is at best merely revelation, not quirky tag lines that sound like other schools.

4) Distinctive Culture

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Thriving schools and colleges have developed a culture that attracts people. They have a “secret sauce” and have learned how to bottle it. They emote a palpable feeling to visitors, demonstrating that there is something different and authentic about them. Visitors can feel that there is something special about the place, and they share that feeling with others.

5) Excellent Product

Thriving schools and colleges have an excellent academic program. Whether it is a small collection of flagship or signature programs, a truly innovative learning and assessment approach, a distinctive setting for learning, a best in class educational philosophy, or an unusually gifted faculty, they attract students from further distances and with higher capacity to afford them because they perceive the product is superior. And, it is.

6) Strategically Oriented

Thriving schools and colleges are always strategically poised, operating with a three to five year strategic plan in place, but revisiting it year to year. They are culturally agile and externally oriented, reading the tea leaves of culture, and constantly challenging their assumptions about the future. They have set a strategic course of direction, but are nimble enough annually to make adjustments. And, they only focus on five or fewer strategic priorities at any given time. They are focused.

7) Deep Bench

Thriving schools and colleges have developed a deep leadership bench. They enjoy deep capacity in the executive function of their leadership, with well-cultivated board and administrative team members. Everyone knows their role, they stay in their lane, and they execute well. They collaborate across the organization with ease and flexibility, and they are dedicated to learning through ongoing professional development. They have clear succession plans for each of the senior executive team members and their board.

8) A Vision

Nearly every school or college has a mission statement, or an answer to “what they do”, though fewer than 20% of them have a vision statement, or an answer to “why they do it”. It is actually astonishing that so few educational institutions actually possess a clear vision for the future. Keep in mind that a vision is more about cultural impact and relevance rather than simply providing a consumer transactions. Thriving educational organizations understand that they must inspire others, that they are more than merely a service provider, and that they have a great duty to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

9) Luck

Call it the ultimate X-Factor, but thriving schools and colleges have some luck. Something external to them is working in their favor. Perhaps it is a booming city, a stunning setting, or deteriorating alternative choices in their market. They have identified this market opportunity or gap and have exploited it.

While there are many other elements of great schools and colleges, these are the characteristics that we see most often. Use it as a checklist and ask yourself and your colleagues how your institution stacks up. And, share it with others.

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  1. CG on July 21, 2022 at 8:46 pm

    Dismayed that there’s so little attention focused on faculty in this piece. Better schools feature better professional credentials and treat their instructors better — period. These are terrible times for teachers in many ways, and mediocre schools make things worse via excessive bureaucracy, micromanagement, indifference to academic excellence, poor support in meting out discipline, and even bullying.

    • Ian on July 21, 2022 at 8:48 pm


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