Three years ago, our guest sales trainer asked the Admissions Department at Bluffton University what we tell people is different or special about our university. We answered something like this: “We are a small, private, Christian, liberal arts college in northwest Ohio.” This statement is true, it is important, and it is central to our existence. So…what’s wrong with that? Well, for starters, there are hundreds of small private Christian liberal arts colleges in the country, many within easy driving distance of Bluffton! Simply stating what we are is in no way inspiring, and certainly does nothing to set us apart from other schools, motivate a prospective student to visit our campus, or enroll.

If we want to attract more students to Mennonite Schools, we must be purpose-driven. That is, we must

  • begin by understanding what strengths make each school truly different from other schools,

  • define our purpose, based on those strengths,

  • create a vision of how we can build that purpose into a unique program,

  • execute the program with excellence, and

  • effectively communicate the benefits of the program to prospective students.

Here are five steps that we have found to be effective in leading purpose-driven enrollment growth. Along with each step is a piece of the story of how Bluffton University has begun to approach enrollment building via a purpose-driven identity.

Research -

Learn about the deep emotional insights that drive the unique strengths of what your school does well today. In our research phase at Bluffton, we asked current students to participate in a latent image exercise, image metaphor exercises, and associative brand activities that enabled us to understand emotional insights the students could not articulate from the conscious part of their brain. Note that while we did ask them what they liked and disliked about Bluffton, we did not use those results. To get to deep emotional insights use only the interpretation of what students provided through pictures, stories, and exercises.

Soul Searching -

Determine the themes coming out of the emotional research and determine whether these strengths are sufficient to drive future growth. If they are not, reexamine your mission statement to determine if it is strong enough, or whether it simply has not been executed effectively. If the strengths are strong and differentiating, then confirm the mission and proceed with the development of a vision for the future. At Bluffton University, we discovered that the themes we were seeing from students, faculty, and staff were the same. Second, these themes were very consistent with our mission statement and our enduring values of discovery, community, respect, and service. Finally, it was noted that the themes of community, diversity, togetherness, naturalness, personalization were prominent. In addition, some interesting tensions emerged: liberal arts together with professional education, safety together with challenge, and individuality alongside community.

Creating Together –

Integrate the underlying emotional themes to create a challenging vision for the future of your school. Build on the foundations that you have identified as being core to your mission, but push the boundaries of what might be the right direction for your future. Use the underlying emotional themes to construct a new vision of how you want others to view your institution. The tough part, as it certainly has been for us, is to connect the vision of what the right things are for the school to become, with a dramatic way to effectively communicate that new vision to prospective students and their families. Be sure that internal change is consistent with how you are marketing your school externally. A vision of change is never an easy thing to get full commitment within an institution. Be prepared to step back periodically and assure that a base level of agreement exists across all key stakeholders. At Bluffton our “Creating TogetherTM” initiative reflects our purpose and was defined by six guiding principles.

Defining a purpose –

If you want to be a truly inspiring organization, start with a purpose (why), rather than a description of what you are. Always begin with your mission statement and core values. Then craft a purpose-driven identity. How you think, act, and communicate should always start with why you do what you do, proceed to how you do it, and then finish with what you do.

For Bluffton University, it goes like this:

  • Why: We believe in bringing together people and ideas for a greater purpose
  • How: Our professors and coaches bring together expertise in their field with a deep caring for each student. Our general education program brings together broad knowledge of the world with key life skills. We bring modest tuition together with very strong financial aid.
  • What: We are a small, private, Christian, liberal arts college in northwest Ohio.

Action –

Take clear, consistent action to make sure your new purpose driven identity will bear fruit for your school. Based on your mission, values, and purpose, ideate as many ways as possible to make your purpose come to life. Most organizations can only handle a few new ideas at a time, so prioritize. Choose a limited number of projects so that you can give sufficient time to complete each one, and to make sure they are all done well.

Bluffton University decided to focus on seven projects:

  • Academic program development - new and existing
  • Financial Aid and Tuition – guaranteeing tuition costs less than or equal to tuition at the state schools
  • Modeling together – generating remarkable skills in human relationships
  • Marketing – a new generation of The Power of PurpleTM marketing materials, “created together” internally
  • Spiritual Life – more options and experiences available for spiritual growth
  • Career Experience – enhancing our internships, practica, campus jobs, and other work-related experiences
  • Collegiate culture – bringing students, faculty, and staff together via campus events and traditions.

Conclusion - A clear, broadly embraced purpose-driven identity will energize your school to better fulfill its mission, accomplish things you may never have imagined, and generate perceptions of your school that will boost your enrollment.



*Based on the seminar given by Ron Headings at Education Leaders Gathering, February 2015


Contributed by Ron Headings  –  5/18/2015

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