Isomorphism in Liberal Arts Colleges: Comparative Case Studies on Marketing Initiatives
Cenczyk, Robert Edward
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The decline in the number of liberal arts colleges since the mid-1950s has been precipitated by a number of factors, most prevalently the increase in larger comprehensive and research universities as well as the demand for job-ready degree programs. Since liberal arts colleges are largely tuition-driven, the lack of student interest has forced some institutions to abandon their traditional curriculum – based largely in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences – in favor of vocational or professional programs that have the potential to increase the number of applicants looking for job-ready degree programs. This transformation has created two subsets of liberal arts colleges and greater competition among these institutions to recruit and retain students to sustain their operating revenue. As a result of this, the nature of the higher education market has encouraged institutions to adopt similar initiatives in an effort to gain relevance. To illustrate this, comparative case studies were constructed of two liberal arts institutions: Suburban College and Rural College, small institutions with 1000 and 2000 students, respectively. This study investigates the strategic response of moderately selective liberal arts colleges to market competition. Specifically, the purpose of this study is to understand how these largely tuition-driven institutions market themselves to attract students thereby sustaining enrollment and operating revenue. Institutional theory is used as the framework for analyzing and discussing research results. This concept explains how organizations behave in an attempt to gain legitimacy within a market (Kondra & Hinings, 1998). A major element of institutional theory is isomorphism, or the tendency of one organization to adopt the characteristics and actions of others in a market as a means of acceptance (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Meyer & Rowan, 1977). Three themes were constructed from the data that were common to both institutions. These colleges were challenged to deliver their interpretation of a liberal arts college to potential applicants and their families. Both colleges engaged in a number of marketing techniques to establish brand awareness and increased value utilizing social media and print marketing among other initiatives. Finally, both Rural and Suburban College offered a number of on-campus events designed to familiarize students with the institution. Their decision-making underscores the normative behavior of these colleges to establish relevance in a competitive higher education market.