Enrollment Insights Blog

Competitor, Peer, or Aspiration? How to define the landscape in education

Estimated read time – 6 minutes

If there’s a question that will start arguments amongst offices on campus, it’s the seemingly benign “Who are our competitors?” Faculty will argue for one set of schools, leadership another, advancement a third, and admissions a fourth. All are (generally) based upon perceptions as well as sometimes lofty aspirations: If I had a dollar for every school I’ve heard a counselor claim to be the “Harvard of the Midwest/West/South/etc.” I could take a very nice vacation. 

It’s helpful to know who your true competitors are, but most schools don’t consider peer or aspirational groups for benchmarking and research. Let’s read on and change that!

  • Competitors – Competitors are the most commonly discussed on campuses, and occasionally even brought up by parents on tour. (For some reason it’s usually a dad.) A competitor is a school that you see large numbers of students considering and/or enrolling in.

    But how do you know who your real competitors are? Layering your CRM information with Clearing House data gives you a full picture and can show you your win/loss by school or type of school. You may have a list that looks the same for all students, but it’s far more likely that you have different list of competitors by major interest, extracurricular interests, family income, or family location. Collect all of the data and build a dashboard so that others on campus can answer questions as needed (and you get some kudos for planning ahead!).
  • Peers – Peers are the schools that look like you; they have similar settings and student bodies. To figure out your peers,use IPEDS and other reporting bodies you find most relevant to identify schools that have a similar makeup to your own, I recommend a 10-25% tolerance of difference depending upon how large or small of a list you want. Look for Carnegie classification, location (City:Large, Town:Distant, etc.), total enrollment, grad:undergrad ratio, % Pell eligible, faculty and staff levels, academic data, and other data to find those with similar profiles to your own institution.

    Consider limiting to schools in the same athletic division as yours as well. An NCAA DI school that might look similar to an NCAA DIII school will still have a very different environment. I recommend also limiting these to your region of the U.S. A school with a similar profile on the other side of the country still can be very different.
  • Aspirational – Aspirational schools are those that look similar to your strategic goals. Look five years into the future: What do you want your institution to become? Will it have larger total enrollment, growing grad specifically, increasing Pell eligible students, increasing average GPA? Define what you want to be, and use the same process that you did for peer schools to identify your aspirational list.

    For aspirational schools you should open the pool nationwide to get a broader view of the overall landscape. The results you come up with can also be used as a list of schools to reach out to in order to build relationships.

Once you have identified each group it’s important to do something with them. Here are a few suggestions for how to make use of the data:

  • Benchmarking – The most obvious, and perhaps most valuable, use of this research is for benchmarking. Find the differences between yourself and your competitors to know what they offer that you don’t, how financial aid compares, or even how your inquiry form and application experiences differ. Look to your peers for program offerings, differences in retention and yield, and endowments. Your aspirational schools provide a roadmap. If you are not competitors or in the same region, you should develop relationships. Are there offerings that contribute to their success that you can consider?
  • New Program Development – Look to your competitors and their program offerings. Use the net cost of each school (conveniently displayed on their Niche profiles) to determine the average price of each program to find new programs that you can offer at a competitive price. If you have similar programs and faculty capabilities, there is a lower barrier to entry than a program requiring new faculty and facilities. 
  • Market Differentiation – Analyze the way your competitors talk about themselves. Find the most common words and phrases they use and try to remove those from your marketing pieces and admissions language to stand out from the crowd. Does everyone claim to have small classes and personal attention? (They do, trust me. Regardless of reality.) How do you describe the experience at your school in a meaningful way that doesn’t say the same thing that everyone else does? What are your proof points to show what you mean instead? 
  • Board Reporting – A well-informed dashboard or report showing benchmarks and the changing landscape will earn you extra respect and appreciation from your board. A strategic plan demanding growth of 25% can come to life if you can show them schools that you would look like, and what those changes might mean. 
  • Digital Marketing – Comparing yourself to your competitors can help take advantage of remarketing opportunities that Niche offers. Using data to determine who your competitors are instead of relying on perception will drive better results for you.

If you need help building your lists or making use of them, let’s talk! Sometimes it’s good to have someone to bounce ideas off of. Or, if you want this research and analysis done for you, I will (of course) recommend we talk about a Niche Market Intelligence Report. Connect with an Account Executive to talk about what you’re looking for.

Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.