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About 14 years ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, something strange began to happen at colleges and universities across the country amid a diverse decline in industries: American undergraduate enrollment declined for the first time in nearly 60 years. Institutions across the country began to close or consolidate, especially smaller liberal arts colleges whose degree programs had become outdated and unwanted by new generations of students. Competition for prospective students intensified. This moment of reckoning provides a particularly good example of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a leader.
As the president of the world’s most comprehensive university for creative professions, I knew we offered unique degree programs, but I was surprised: To this shrinking group of potential students we could more accurately reflect the value of an SCAD degree. How can you tell? To boost enrollment, some university presidents gamble on grand new football stadiums and other valuable nuances to education. At SCAD, we already had the draw: our one-of-a-kind degree programs, along with the sophisticated, specialized educational resources to support those programs. We just needed to tell that story.
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I called each department chair and school dean into my office at SCAD and charged them with identifying collectively and individually what was most distinctive about our degree programs. What were the distinguishing factors of their departments compared to programs at thousands of other colleges around the world? How were we the first, the best, the most, the only? In which categories should we be ranked #1?
I got some empty stars. SCAD was already ranked by U.S. News and World Report Ranked among the top universities in the country. Did we really need to dig in and say how each individual degree program was even #1? “Yes I said. I wanted every leader to be identified “Ne Plus Ultra” of their departments and schools. I wanted every student, parent and employer on the planet to know that SCAD was a major source of knowledge in every subject we taught.
We had to do homework. It was an audacious undertaking: endless analysis and collective self-reflection, digging into the data, studying our alumni, telling on white boards how we are different. The results will change SCAD forever.
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Find your Knee Plus Ultra
Study the dynamics of other successful organizations and businesses, and you see similar mindsets at work. In 1959, a small car manufacturer developed a new safety mechanism—the three-point safety belt—that would revolutionize the industry. The same brand soon developed side impact protection systems, whiplash protection systems, roll-over protection systems, and many other life saving technologies. You already know the name of this company: VolvoThe ne plus ultra of motor vehicle safety.
identify yourself differentiating factors, What is your first, best, most, only? Among airlines, Delta flies highest in the sky, having been named by Fortune as one of the most admired companies in the world For the ninth year in a row, the airline with the highest rating on the list. They continue to build on excellence by flying almost everywhere (offering one of the hottest routes). They deliver customers to their destination on time (named most trusted) and with a smile (name) one of the best places to workDelta continues to build on these forces to rise above the industry.
For decades, Nike”The Biggest, Worst Names in the Sneaker BusinessWho among us hasn’t rocked that swoon? Famed fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, was on campus recently and she reminded me that Nike is ne plus ultra also in another region, as of the world Most Recognizable and Valuable Apparel Brands Eighth consecutive year. worth more than nike twice as much as adidashis closest rival.
Look at those superlatives! the safest, Best, most admired, most trusted, the most precious, Volvo, Delta and Nike know their distinguishing factors. Do you know yours?
I know, I know: you don’t have $45 billion in annual revenue. Nor did Nike when Bill Bowerman made the first iconic console on his kitchen table by putting rubber in his wife’s waffle iron. You may not (yet) be the biggest business in your area, or even on your block, but you can get started now.
In 1978, when I wrote the mission statement for SCAD, I announced that we would be the world’s first and only arts university to focus on. creative career, No one else was doing it. The older, more established competition settled for vague mission statements. We will get specific. “No hungry artist” was our motto.
Several decades later, when I partnered with leaders across the university to determine the best distinguishing factors, we made many more points clear. ne plus ultrasound Already among us: We offer the most degree programs and expertise of any other art and design university. We employ the most Art History PhDs of any university in the world. We offer the first and only MFA degree program in Motion Media and Sequential Arts. We are home to the largest fashion school in the world. Our focus on careers has resulted in higher alumni employability rates as compared to our peer institutions. (For the past five years, we have earned remarkable 99% employment rate to our graduates.)
ne plus ultrasound SCAD has only grown more influential over the years, which is why, even in the wake of COVID-19, SCAD has continued to grow, achieving our highest enrollment of nearly 16,000 students this year.
Why? Well, our Savannah Film Studio is the most comprehensive university film studio campus in the country. SCAD is the only university with its own full-service casting office and the only university with a professional commercial gallery service. We now offer the only MFA in theme park design, the only BFA in the beauty and fragrance business, the only BFA in user experience design created in partnership with Google.
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study your brand
Most universities have a campus. We have on three, two continents. Most universities do not have a teaching museum. We have four. SCAD degree programs in fashion, animation, film, interior design and more Rank #1, And we’re also home to some of the most exclusive in-house business research studios in higher education, with dozens of Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 clients and hundreds more. Among our clients, you can find Volvo, Delta and Nike, who work with SCAD to stay ahead of their competition. Like other specialty brands, SCAD knows our excellent qualities, and we talk about them as often as we can.
You’ve got homework. Study your brand, your customers and your competition. Commit to offering the lowest prices on the most interesting products, longest lasting goods, most efficient, humane services, greenest production processes, fastest delivery. Start small and think big. Like Volvo, Delta, Nike and SCAD, you can lead a brand that excels in your field. All you have to do is sharpen your pencil, identify your distinguishing factors, tell the story, and watch yourself grow to be best-in-class.