Harness Your Unique Story to Increase Enrollment

It’s never been harder to stand out in higher education. Thousands of institutions are competing for a dwindling number of students. With so many schools to choose from, and a generation of students who have become even more discerning, what used to help you stand out just doesn’t cut it anymore. Plenty of schools offer online programs, cost-effective degrees, individualized support, and expert faculty. But we both know your university has far more to offer than that. 

As Archer Education’s creative director, I work with dozens of institutions to help them uncover their value. I wish I could simply give you a list of everything that makes a school unique, but that’s not how it works. You need to dig deep to uncover what truly makes your university distinct. Once you do, you’ll find yourself armed with new strategies to increase your student enrollment and build awareness of your brand.

Uncover Your Unique Value

So you’re ready to start digging. Where do you begin? Here are a few key methods to help you discover your institution’s unique story. 

Discovery Interviews             

The value of discovery interviews cannot be overstated. These can be informal one-on-one interviews with faculty, focus groups conducted with current students, or even surveys of alumni. Ideally, a combination of all three is used. The goal is to talk to the people who know your institution inside out and can present the different perspectives of the many communities that make up your university.

OK, but What Questions Should I Ask?

Naturally, you should always tailor your questions to the stakeholders you’re speaking to. But there are a few categories that I always include regardless of who I’m interviewing.

First is the mission and story category, with questions like: 

  • What do alumni and/or people in the community tend to say about your university? 
  • What’s something that you wish more prospective students knew about your university?
  • What excites you about your university?
  • How does your commitment to [insert university value] come to life for students?

Next, you’ll want to dig deeper into the student experience and academics:

  • What makes students choose your university over its competitors?
  • What does the relationship between faculty and students look like?
  • How is [insert university focus area, such as hands-on learning, research, or community service] reflected in the curriculum?
  • What are the key learning outcomes you want students to achieve? 

And, finally, you’ll want to know more about your audience:

  • What do your current students look like [their demographics and background], and what are they motivated by? 
  • What are some qualities of a successful student at your university?
  • What have alumni gone on to do with their degrees?
  • What types of students could potentially be a good fit that you’re currently not seeing represented?

Wait, Who Should I Talk to Again?

To get the full picture of what your institution has to offer, you need to speak to a diverse group of stakeholders. You’ll want to talk to university leaders who have been with the school for years and understand its mission and voice, as well as marketing and admissions staff members who have spent time talking to prospective students. You’ll want to include faculty members who know their programs and students inside out, and students and alumni who can speak to their experience firsthand. 

In short, try to talk to someone from every part of your campus community. 

Market Research               

After you’ve talked to your university community, you’ll need to conduct market research to better understand the competitive landscape and home in on what your audience cares about. Everything that makes your school unique always has value, but its impact is lessened if the students you want to attract don’t care about it. 

During your research, you’ll want to answer two key questions:

  • Who are you trying to reach?
  • What are your competitors doing?

Thanks to your interviews, you should have the answer to the first question, so all you need to do is study them. What types of media do they engage in? What are they passionate about? What are they trying to accomplish?

For the second question, you need to figure out which institutions are your direct competitors and which ones you aspire to be more like. You’ll want to stand out from the former and be inspired by the latter.

Value Propositions            

Now that you’re armed with information from your discovery and market research, it’s time to develop strong unique value propositions (UVPs). These are exactly what they sound like, features or experiences that you offer students — and they’re the core components of what makes you special as an institution. You can learn more about the process of defining your UVPs in this article.

Create a Clear Identity and Narrative

You have research, copious interview notes, and some thoughts about your value propositions. You’re done, right? No, you’re really just beginning. All of the previous steps gave you the foundation on which to build your brand identity and narrative — your unique story. Here are some tips to help craft that story:

  • Start by identifying the heart of your institution, that core mission that unites your community and resonates with prospective students. Make sure to also incorporate elements of what you want your school to be, things you’re committed to creating, like an inclusive learning environment or a more diverse student body.
  • Now support that narrative with evidence. How do you live and breathe that mission? Why should students care? In writing, we call this showing not telling. It’s far more impactful to communicate through action rather than exposition.
  • Finally, showcase how only your school can help students achieve their goals. You know your audience, now speak to them. Show you understand them and have exactly what they need. Unsurprisingly, this can look like a number of different things. Maybe you incorporate alumni success stories or highlight special support services or educational experiences. Mold it to your university.

Use Your Brand Advocates 

Over the course of your discovery interviews, you’ll identify the strongest advocates for your institution — the students, faculty, and alumni who live and breathe your mission. Use them. Your community is the heartbeat of your school, and their voices will resonate with prospective students more than anything else. 

You can highlight their unique experiences, perspectives, and expertise in a variety of ways.

Public Relations

Utilize public relations opportunities to highlight the achievements and expertise of your faculty. For example, having a faculty member act as an expert source in a high-profile article can demonstrate the real-world impact of your institution.

Organic Blog Content 

​​Incorporate organic blog content into your website that features personal stories and insights from your university community. Profiles of students, alumni, and faculty can provide authentic perspectives and resonate with prospective students.


Collect and highlight testimonials from your community that showcase the student experience and give life to your brand story and unique value props. Testimonials serve as social proof and can influence prospective students’ decision-making process.

Video Content

Create engaging video content that brings the individual perspectives and journeys of your brand advocates to life. Video testimonials or minidocumentaries can help to connect prospective students visually and emotionally to your university, making it more relatable to them.

Leverage Your Unique Value to Increase Enrollment

You’ve done all the work to uncover your institution’s unique value. Now what? There are a number of strategies for leveraging your story to increase student enrollment, but they all hinge on two key elements: standing out in an oversaturated market and developing brand recognition and consistency. In addition to the following tips, you can explore more ways to increase enrollment in this article.

Clarify Your Messaging               

Don’t let all your hard work go to waste. Use your story to connect with prospective students. Ensure all your messaging — from social posts to web content to search ads — consistently embodies your unique value and communicates your ethos. Your brand narrative should come through in every piece of content you put out into the world.

Showcase Your Story in Creative Visuals              

To stop the scroll, you need something eye-catching. If you don’t have impressive visuals to go with your new messaging, it’s hard to truly stand out. Find new ways to visually express your brand identity and unique story. 

If your university has a long-standing history and focuses on research, maybe this could look like illustrations that mimic academic journals. 

Or, if you’re a school focused on affordability and access, you could explore those themes by highlighting the diverse experiences and backgrounds of your students through real-world imagery. 

Whatever approach you take, push the limits of what you’ve done in the past, and, most of all, use your brand narrative as your touchstone.  

Humanize Your Institution

This was highlighted above, but I can’t overstate it. Use the voices of your students, faculty, staff, and alumni to humanize your school and give life to your story. We often trust people more than the word of an institution. Sharing authentic stories and experiences helps prospective students connect with your institution on a personal level. 

Now You’re an Expert, Good Luck! 

Discovering your institution’s unique story is no small task. But it’s there, in all the nooks and crannies of your community, waiting to be harnessed. Don’t stop at the surface. Talk to your students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Find out what your target audience cares about, and what your competitors are doing. Then pull it all together into a clear narrative that every voice at your university can rally behind. And, once you’ve done all that, get it out into the world and start connecting with prospective students in a new way.
At Archer Education, we have decades of experience helping our partners clarify what makes them stand out and then leverage it to increase their enrollment. So, if you’d like some help uncovering what makes your school unique, contact our team to learn more and explore our offerings today.