This is the story of a university many academics have never heard of. This university doesn’t advertise much or pay for the naming rights for stadiums. It doesn’t have a football or basketball team. But this university grew from a few thousand students to 100,000 in just a few years by knowing how to differentiate itself from its competition.
Before the advent of online learning, branding was not as important. Many colleges had a kind of geographic monopoly for specific programs. College X had the only nursing program; College Y was the only Catholic school in town; and College Z had the only weekend program.
But with online learning there came increased competition from colleges far away. It suddenly became important for a college to have a brand to differentiate it from its competition.
In 1991, Major James Etter, a career marine, dreamed up American Military University (AMU). He did this because of his frustration with trying to attend a traditional university while serving in the military. With the aid of a number of career military men, Major Etter launched his dream and started to build a university — a daunting task. It turned out a school for the military and staffed by the military was an attractive idea.
To make sure the brand stood for something, the university developed policies that catered to its student demographics. He made sure the education was portable, affordable and had generous transfer credit policies. The university developed policies to deal with the uncertainty of deployments and military operations. With the pace of operations during the wars of the past decade, the university developed policies so that the students could complete their work; by allowing them to pick up where they left off after returning from a tour and opening up distance learning opportunities, among other approaches. To make its programs more accessible, the university set tuition at the cost covered by the GI Bill and gave students a book grant so the cost of textbooks would not be an issue.
The university’s commitment to affordable education ensured that it kept tuition at a stable rate. In fact, the university did not raise tuition at all as it grew from 5,000 students to more than 100,000 students in 10 years.
Through its period of growth, it won awards from the Sloan Foundation for quality education and grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The school also developed programs that would appeal to members of the military as they continued to progress in rank and become career military or to aid them to transition to civilian careers. For example, the university built a bachelor’s and master’s degree in intelligence that now boasts more than 10,000 students in that single program. Focusing on homeland security, health care and leadership, the university developed a brand that grew by word of mouth more than by spending marketing dollars. Eventually AMU became part of the American Public University System to appeal to a wider student audience.
The challenge now is how to keep its brand. What is your college’s brand? What is your value proposition? What makes your college stand out?
These are questions you should be able to answer off the top of your head. If not, you have some thinking to do.
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 Russell Kitchner, “Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security,” Page 5. PDF accessible online here.
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