On Purpose: Your Higher Ed. Institution Needs to Declare Why It Exists.

What’s the reason you get out of bed in the morning? Whether it’s changing the lives of students, or taking care of your family, your answer is your personal purpose. 

Now, can you repeat your higher education institution’s defined purpose statement?

If not, guess what it’s time to do?

The last time you rallied the troops to define statements for your institution (like your mission and vision) you probably came away with calluses on your hands from all the verbal tug-of-war over nuances in the language. 

There’s no question: Getting a multi-faceted group of stakeholders to agree on one bold, sincere statement is a feat. Let alone in academia.

Your institution needs a declarative purpose statement for more reasons than one: mission and vision statements aren’t complete without it (and yes, they’re different). A purpose statement fortifies and influences your brand strategy. It aligns everyone under your institution’s name — from engineering students to drama professors to regents — and makes them root for the same thing.

Purpose (and mission, and vision) statement worksheet

Whether you’re developing a purpose statement to complement your mission and vision, or you’re revisiting all three statements for your higher ed. institution – our worksheet allows you to compare these interrelated messages side by side while you craft and finalize.
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Bottom line: It’s a strategic differentiator, a requirement for all higher education institutions in today’s climate.

Consider what’s at stake in your higher ed institution’s purpose statement.

5 reasons why your higher ed. institution’s purpose statement elevates your brand.

If your mission statement addresses the actionable plan you are working to achieve (a pragmatic how), and your vision statement paints the desired outcome of that mission (an aspirational what), then your purpose statement is your why. It’s the reason you created a vision and mission statement in the first place. They’re synergistic. And you need all three to establish a compelling, cohesive brand.

We’ve outlined the top five reasons why a purpose statement belongs in your brand strategy — as well as in every lecture hall, recruitment effort and fundraising campaign. 

  1. Differentiation. Every school has its list of famous alumni, research specializations and “the latest technology.” What sets you apart is your purpose. You can still tout your professor-student ratio and LEED-certified buildings. But take a stand as a purpose-driven institution and you own a new narrative. This separates you from the rest of the institutions who are prone to navel-gazing and don’t look outside their campus, and even the ones who do. Because at the end of the day, your purpose statement should be so uniquely you that you should be the only one able to say it.
  2. Journey. Your institution’s motivations, role in your community and the world at large, distinct perspectives and contribution to society — all of these elements are borne out of your purpose. And they all influence the journey your students take on their way to their destination: Earning a degree. Your purpose impacts every detail that makes your journey exclusive for your students — from the faculty you attract to your fundraising efforts. Students turn into leaders in their community, who point back to your institution and say, “My journey here was pivotal to who I am today.”
  3. Rallying cry. Facts and figures only energize people so much. Purpose gives your audience something more exciting to get behind. Purpose provides an emotional tether to your mission. It puts everything into perspective. An effectively resonate purpose statement will simultaneously affirm a student’s choice to attend your institution, attract your desired faculty and staff, and inspire donors to give. Without emotion and truth infused, it’s not a purpose statement. It’s just an existence statement.
  4. Ethics. This generation of students scrutinizes the ethics of organizations they support more than any generation has. So they decide to support the organizations that are most aligned with their beliefs. They’re all about putting their money where their mouths are. In turn, organizations and institutions are being held accountable in ways they never have.  Articulating what you believe in your purpose statement leaves no question on where you stand. 
  5. Why. This is the simplest, most powerful reason. Why does your institution open its doors every day? Every university can be a beacon of knowledge – but why are you? And why should people choose you to pursue that beacon? Purpose answers those questions. Purpose is your “why.”

Elements of a purpose statement for your higher ed. institution.

Because mission and vision statements are created in a multidisciplinary environment, there’s a lot of ground to cover and people to convince. After a few rounds of back-and-forth, stakeholders can quickly become milquetoast and thus the statement gets diluted just to get it out the door. Don’t let your purpose statement suffer the same fate. 

To be effective, differentiating and beckoning, your purpose should be sufficiently broad and equally inspirational. At the same time, it needs to be specific to you and your ethos. Because the more specific it is, the more you can use it to help identify right-fit audiences, the people who are best positioned to thrive with you. Hey, we never said this was easy!

Without emotion and truth infused, it’s not a purpose statement. It’s just an existence statement.

For example, if you say, “We exist to educate a better society,” we will politely tell you that is not a purpose statement. It doesn’t inspire, or differentiate. In fact, it might be your mission statement, but think about it: That is what every university exists to do. A purpose tells everyone why your institution doesn’t look like the others.

Ultimately, your purpose statement should be a declaration with which people throughout your higher ed. institution can identify, despite their specialization.  

How does your institution make the world go ’round?

If nothing jumps out at you when looking at how your institution is especially unique, look to what drives your research, what your students achieve, or how you interact with your community. 

Are you preparing the world to adapt to a changing society and climate? What about developing progressive educational policies that revolutionize the way students learn around the world? Or, maybe you’re all about empowering the next generation of STEM entrepreneurs. 

At the end of the day, whatever your institution exists to do influences everything down to the last course description, research fellowship and final exam essay. Donors look to your mission, vision and purpose to confirm their investment. Your community supports your institution because they believe in the good that it does, the students it shapes and the contributions it makes.

When you define it, your purpose tells the world it’s not all about you. Rather, it’s all about what you’re going to do for the world. And you’re already living it. It’s just up to you to define it — then declare it.

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