formula for failure

This is the third in my series of posts seeking to unpack the ABHE-Barna Group college enrollment research project, major findings of which are summarized in the monograph: What’s Next for Biblical Higher Education? We’re on a quest to ensure we convert information into actionable intelligence.

If you don’t yet have a copy or you haven’t made use of the accompanying video resources, what are you waiting for? Download them here:

In my last post, I argued that Bible colleges have a Definitional Dilemma. Do you retain the Bible college name and identity and embrace the risk that the majority of your stakeholder pool will likely underestimate the range and relevance of your educational programs? Or do you embrace a less circumscribed definition of your mission and curricular scope and thus have to contend with the fact that the average stakeholder doesn’t comprehend the nuances that you think are so obvious and important?

Whatever path you choose, that brings us to the second major implication I observe from the Barna research: the key branding challenge of differentiation.

The key to enrollment success and mission fulfillment.



I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had over the years with faculty members, board members, and alumni that went something like this:

[Insert name of other college we think is a competitor] has [insert name of degree program] and therefore, we will be losing competitive advantage if we don’t offer the same program.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Get out the minister’s funeral manual. If that’s your approach to marketing, you’re on your way to the grave—or at the very least, to muddling mediocrity.

Based on his landmark study of companies that made the leap from good to great and sustained their exceptional performance for at least 15 years, Jim Collins developed The Hedgehog Concept. Here is a summary:

Others in the field of enrollment and communication sometimes use the term: unique selling proposition. Whatever term you prefer, you need to insist that differentiation will characterize your communications, marketing, and student recruitment efforts. You must ensure that differentiation thinking pervades leadership team, faculty, board and other strategy discussions.

Especially those ABHE member colleges that choose the path of expanding the scope of their mission and curricular programs such that they overlap more and more with many Christian liberal arts colleges will need to develop a disciplined and well-honed hedgehog concept. They will limit their programs and focus their communication on the things that clearly differentiate them from other colleges and educational/training options.

What programs do you offer that are unique? (Careful, very few things are truly unique!) What features of your program(s) are most distinctive? In what aspects of the student experience do you consistently excel your competitors? Do you offer differentiated advantages in terms of program content or features that you can demonstrate are different from others and that matter to your stakeholders, such as:

  • access to your program (e.g., schedule, location)
  • experiential features of your program
  • the caliber and character of students enrolled in your program
  • campus location or program facilities
  • truly exceptional faculty (hint: most likely not their academic credentials but their real world experience and demonstrable mentoring mindset)
  • placement of graduates from a particular program
  • pricing of your program (including best-in-market financial aid or payment plans)
  • other clearly differentiating features in which you can demonstrate a record of delivering exceptional value?

If you’re a president or academic leader, resist all efforts to dilute your energy and resources as you try to keep up rather than to differentiate yourself in terms of your capacity to deliver something you are passionate about and can deliver with exceptional quality.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …

  Tuition Reset — A Trend Worth Watching?

Cumberland College (KY) has announced it will roll back the price of undergraduate tuition by 57% in 2019. They are the latest college to make a bold attempt to abandon tuition discounting and gain market attention by differentiating their sticker price. It’s too early to say this represents a new wave, but it is a trend you should probably keep your eyes on.

  Christian Universalism Comprehensively Dismantled

Michael McClymond has undertaken the most comprehensive scholarly treatment of universalism published in many a generation (The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, Baker Academic, 2018). Through its crystalline exegetical and historical lenses, such preposterous theological postulations as Rob Bell’s Love Wins (Harper Collins, 2011) evaporate into the exegetical ether from which they are extruded. McClymond asserts, “an exegetical case for universalism simply cannot be made on the basis of the whole of the Bible, interpreted in more or less grammatical-literal terms. To uphold universalism, one has to evade certain scriptural texts, either by means of non-obvious spiritualization (e.g, the “fire” not as punishing but as purifying) or simply through a fiat rejection of bothersome verses.” Be sure your library and your theology faculty obtain and circulate this work.