11/17/2012 05:44 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2013

Looking Beyond the Business of Higher Education, It's the Differences That Make a College Special

As you travel across the United States, you find a world-class mix of colleges and universities dotting the land. These institutions are private, public, religious, nonprofit, for-profit, historically African-American, tribal, etc. This wonderful array of institutions that are uniquely American are the best in the world. If you are on this blog, chances are very good that you are the product of one of these fine institutions.

If you allow your mind to reminisce for a moment and think about your college experience, you will probably recall a somewhat idyllic place where ideas are openly debated, where professors rule, and where the rest of the world seems just that -- the rest of the world. If you were to return to your alma mater today, your memories would only be strengthened.

However, the last few years have produced some amazing changes on our nation's campuses.
While the idyllic appearance continues on the outside, underneath this sea of academic tranquility and intellectual exchange lies a cauldron of boiling activity. It seems competition has weaved its way into the fabric of our academic lives. While institutions have always competed to a certain degree with other local institutions, in recent years the competition has become much more intense and onerous.

While once higher educational institutions were the pristine temples on the hill, they are now challenged for market share from online purveyors, out-of-state institutions, for-profit colleges and universities, and international institutions of some repute. The "market" that used to be one's backyard has now been claimed by every institution that thinks it has the capability of claiming it.

Overnight, it seems, our institutions of higher learning have become more akin to businesses selling goods and services than to that idyllic picture of times past contained in our memory. In addition to competition, other forces have been at work within our institutions.

Many of our private colleges and universities were founded and run by religious congregations. Toward the middle of the 20th century, while these institutions were growing, the supply of religious men and women began to dwindle. As a result, more lay people were hired and justly required, at a minimum, a living wage. Other institutions found themselves in unionized environments with increasing salary and benefit demand.

Our higher education environment is now ripe with increasing expenses and the always present need for increasing income to meet these expenses. The result? Higher education has now become a business. Like all businesses, higher education is only as good as the products and services it delivers to its customers - its students. To be successful in the increasing business environment in which it finds itself, a college must differentiate itself from its competition.

Higher education is a commodity-driven environment. A commodity refers to goods and services common to the higher education enterprise, goods and services that most institutions offer. This is the non-unique side of each institution, because essentially every institution offers the same goods and services.

With everyone offering the same thing, it now becomes a challenge to differentiate one's institution from the pack. Those institutions that have been able to differentiate themselves have been very successful; those that have not are in trouble.

Differentiation can take the form of services offered, religious affiliation, unique courses of study, mission, targeted programs, etc. However, as soon as an institution successfully differentiates, imitators seize the opportunity for themselves. Hence, differentiation is a continual process of improvement and being one step ahead of the competition.

Make no mistake about it -- higher education is a business. What does this mean to the students -- the consumer? There is a universe of higher education institutions available to them. When appropriately accredited, all offer a similar array of course and programs. What one needs to look for are those differentiators that set an institution apart from all others.

So the next time you look at your alma mater, see if you can pick out the differentiators that set your institution apart. What will I receive beyond course credit and the necessary book knowledge? If the institution is one to which you or a loved one is considering submitting an application, ask the question -- what differentiates this institution from the others, and is this difference worth the sticker price?