How do you get people to Exit 59? Dr. Cedric Howard on using Blue Ocean Strategy to increase enrollment at Fredonia

Fredonia Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Cedric Howard (photo by Cory Maher)

Most businesses compete in a marketplace by making their products cheaper, faster, or flashier. Some companies, though, make a new marketplace altogether.

Think of Airbnb and Netflix. Instead of competing in their traditional marketplaces of hotels and cable television, they created new ones that were different or even vastly superior to what existing markets could offer.

This sort of innovation is not new — after all, cars replaced horses in the early 20th century — but it was given a popular name in 2005 when Renee Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim published their book, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant. In their terms, a “red ocean” is a traditional, competitive marketplace. A “blue ocean” is the sort of opportunity Airbnb and Netflix took instead.

Blue Ocean Strategy sits in the middle of Dr. Cedric Howard’s office bookshelf. Hired in August as Fredonia’s Vice President of Student Affairs, Howard is tasked with reversing the decline in student enrollment the university has seen this decade. But instead of viewing the enrollment problem traditionally through population rates and demographics, he sees it through a more strategic lens. As Howard says, Fredonia can continue to compete with other universities in the red ocean of student enrollment, or it can create a blue ocean by finding new students other universities forgot about.

Our conversation, which took place at the meeting table in Howard’s Maytum Hall office, began with a merging of perspectives. One comes from a man who’s spent twenty years as a vice president everywhere from Florida to Washington. The other comes from Fredonia’s staff, most of whom have spent the majority of their professional lives in Chautauqua County:

Jon-Ryan Maloney: As you’re coming in you’re trying to honor what’s already been done here (Fredonia). But I’ve only worked here, I don’t have your perspective. What has been done here that you haven’t seen in other places?

Dr. Cedric Howard: I think it’s two things. There’s very few places other than historically black colleges where 90-95% of the (professional) employees are graduates. That is a unique concept.

JRM: Here, is that on purpose?

Dr. Howard: I think it has been part of the business model. It has pros and cons. Even those that have gone away and gotten other schooling have come back, and they’ve been here for long periods of time. And then the second thing: because of the tenure option for professionals, they have guaranteed employment after their vesting period.

JRM: People like me?

Dr. Howard: Yes. That is a concept that is unique to New York. Usually, and especially in student affairs, a professional will come and they’re there for three to five years, then they move out in order to move up. So you bring a different perspective, always, every three to five years. With those perspectives usually there’s some level of change, both for good and bad. Here, with the exception of athletics, about 95% of my staff are Fredonia grads.

JRM: Wow, I didn’t know that.

Dr. Howard: Yeah. And of those I’d say the majority of them have a spouse who’s a Fredonia grad. So they know Fredonia, but they may not necessarily know the profession that they’re in. Coming in, I wanted to honor the fact that they knew the nuances of the campus. We understand what it means to be a member of campus. In athletics, we know what it means to be a Blue Devil. But how do you merge the two together, that you can have that experience as a professional, but yet understand there’s a profession that undergirds what you’re doing in order to prepare you to be extremely successful long-term? How do you marry those two things together? How do I honor what it’s been, but yet position us to be more competitive moving forward? The schools that have done a better job, who are actually growing in the midst of some reduction in the population are the schools who have said, and I know we don’t like to say this, “You know, running a school is a business. It’s a non-profit business, but it’s a business!”

JRM: But we don’t think about college as a business.

Dr. Howard: Correct.

JRM: But it’s a competitive business.

Dr. Howard: Our customers are our students! Guess what, just like you would go to a business and they have frequent-user cards to get you to come back, guess what, those are our alums. When there’s exciting things happening at a business you go there, and when there’s a homecoming on campus you come back. Schools have looked at this and said, “You know, maybe we need to change our model. Maybe we need to change what our focus is, and maybe we need to focus less on trying to reinforce ourselves, and more on serving the people that actually make a difference and keep us viable.” That’s where Blue Ocean Strategy comes in. One of the strategies here is the difference between a “red ocean” and a “blue ocean.” In a red ocean, you’re trying to compete with your competitors, and a blue ocean says, “Let’s make the competition irrelevant.” That’s why I think I’ve been able to grow other institutions, because we stopped trying to compete with other schools. Why do I have to compete with them if I go directly to the source, the students, to make this a true student experience. Now they want to come to us, and we become a destination site. That’s where I want to lead us towards, that we don’t actually see ourselves as in competition with another SUNY school.

JRM: Because when we recruit and we’re talking to parents and students, they might ask if there’s even any difference between the SUNY schools.

Dr. Howard: Correct, correct.

JRM: There’s a world of difference if you go there, but I would have trouble articulating what the difference is. When you’re envisioning what’s different about Fredonia, what are you thinking about?

Dr. Howard: I think when you ask those questions you’re doing the competition thing, versus saying, “What’s important to you?” You’re a strength and conditioning coach, but writing is important to you because you do a lot of writing. So why wouldn’t I give you the opportunity to do more writing? Versus saying, well you’re a coach so you do that task. So when we’re going out, rather than saying this is who we are versus who they are, you say, “Well, why not Fredonia?” From a student perspective, this is what we can offer you. Talk about the student experience. So it’s less about getting a degree and more about the experience you’ll have coming here, because especially with the millennial generation their world is built upon experiences — “I want to take a picture of this, I want to FaceTime this, I want to go Facebook Live this” — it’s about the experience. If you don’t capture that experience for them you’ll lose them. That’s what I think about when looking at a strategy with a blue ocean. Rather than telling students that they have to come to our experience, why don’t we say, “Time out, it’s not about us as a campus, it’s about you. What is your experience as a student, and how can we serve you?” That’s a different model.

JRM: You’re just talking in general. The big picture?

Dr. Howard: Yes, just in general. If you think about that as a model, now you begin to change your strategies in a very different way. So you’ll notice that this year the entire recruitment office has changed how they function. A traditional red ocean strategy is to have the student fit into the admissions process. Well, when you look at our admissions process, it would take a student thirty-seven days to get an answer from us. Thirty-seven days from having a completed application which we could judge them on, all because we would be asking for one more letter of recommendation, or one more immunization record.

JRM: You’re almost making it more difficult.

Dr. Howard: Yeah, we’re making it more difficult. A blue ocean says, well, if I know that all I need is a test score and a transcript, then just send me an unofficial transcript and your test scores, and we’ll go ahead and make a decision pending the official stuff coming to us. So we went from a process that took us thirty-seven days down to four days. Since people are so used to having instant decisions, that’s taking advantage of a situation and beginning to focus on the students’ experience versus the traditional college experience. Now, if you want to focus on the student experience, and I’m going to use a model that we’re going to start implementing here, it’s going to be an athletic model. Well, usually some time in February we’re going to have signing days. They’re going to sign and say, “I’m going to commit to this school.” Why don’t we do that as part of the admissions process?

JRM: For everybody?

Dr. Howard: For everybody. Why don’t we go to Fredonia High, or Dunkirk, or Westfield, or Brocton, and say to them, “Hey, on this day we’re going to celebrate all those who got an admissions letter, and by the way we’re going to hand-deliver some of the letters to students who just applied, and we’re going to celebrate the fact that you got admitted to Fredonia.” It doesn’t cost us any more money, but what it has done is it has painted us in a much better light. That’s where we’re going. From an athletic perspective, this is interesting. Most people view athletics in a way that’s, well, there’s these athletes over here (waves hand away).

JRM: You mean at Fredonia?

Dr. Howard: Yeah, here in particular. There’re these athletes over here and we kind of understand that we have Blue Devil athletics. But what does that mean? Well isn’t it interesting that when you look at some of the most successful schools out there, the ones that promote their athletic programs actually have increased enrollment? Athletics brings good will, and it brings a lot of pride. So imagine what happens when you start celebrating that the women’s (basketball) team is 8-1. Imagine if we start celebrating our hockey team, or our cross country team, or our soccer team? Imagine if we start celebrating that as a part of what we do, the same way we do music? Now the good will spreads, because even if I wasn’t a music major and I was a political science major, or a physics major, I can still connect back to athletics and have that sense of good feeling. That’s where I want to build an athletic department that’s very outwardly focused to say, how can we promote Blue Devil athletics?

JRM: When you think about that from your position, how are you influencing that? Because obviously it starts with you.

Dr. Howard: Yes. The first thing is acknowledging that we haven’t promoted it the way we should. I said that in my interview. I was dumbfounded to walk around this campus and the only place I saw Blue Devils anywhere was the sports facilities. That’s who we are. Why isn’t it Blue Devil country all downtown, with banners and flyers, making it an experience? What that does is it creates a sense of good will and good feeling about what’s happening here. We have to find a way as a campus to embrace all of our identities, not just music, or STEM, or athletics. We have to say that there’s space for all of them. Why can’t we have an audience for all of them? They all speak to different personalities, different perspectives, and different sets of students.

JRM: It comes back to the experience — why not Fredonia? I hadn’t thought about how it all relates back to that book.

Dr. Howard: And so what you would do in this book is, for instance, on the admissions side, we used to send out these reports that were thirty-three pages.

JRM: Fredonia did?

Dr. Howard: As a campus, Fredonia did. Now it’s down to five pages. There’s charts and summaries so people can read it. Now even someone who’s not directly related to admissions can tell the “Why Fredonia?” story. Because when we all view ourselves as recruiters, when we all view ourselves as retention agents, then we’ll begin to make a significant difference with enrollment. So it’s putting the infrastructure in place so that by Fall 2018 we can say, “Hey, we’re not in competition with another SUNY. Our only competition is our imagination.” The book talks about the value in innovation. The value isn’t just being innovative, but being strategic in your innovation. So for instance, I know we can’t compete with a research-type school like UB (University at Buffalo), or Albany, or Stony Brook. I’m not trying to compete with them. But I can draw a circle around Western New York and Northwest Pennsylvania and say, why can’t I make this Blue Devil country? Why can’t I get ten students from each of these high schools? Why can’t I serve all these students here? And how do I do it? Because these students want to go to school, but often times they haven’t had us tell them we’re an option for them. Let’s present that option for them.

JRM: Now, obviously that must not have been what we’ve been doing. So what’s different about who we’re targeting now?

Dr. Howard: So the first thing is we have to identify who we actually are targeting. We had a huge net of 6,300 applications, but weren’t really what we’d consider to be live apps. So you had one program that was only going to admit 45 students, but they had 900 applications. What are we doing to attract the other 800 people that have an interest in us? We just said either you got into this program, or we would just decline you.

JRM: Which in my mind right now makes sense. What’s the alternative?

Dr. Howard: That’s the difference. Lets just say if our psychology program only admitted 45 students, and you had 800 people interested in psychology as a major, well, statistics will tell us that an average student will change their major two or three times. Why don’t we admit them into the social sciences as a field for a couple years. Some of them will wind up in psychology, some of them will wind up in sociology, they’ll wind up in different areas, so why don’t we admit them into the school, and not focus on the program. A red ocean strategy says you can only come to my school if you get into this program. A blue ocean strategy says let me admit you into my school for a couple of years so you can determine what you’d like to do, and then if you decide you want to go into psychology. Even if I admit only 45, why is it only 45? Is it a resource situation? Then, if I know I have a large enough group that I need to add resources to, I’ll add resources to that. Currently we’re reactive. We have hard caps. And then what’s been happening with enrollment is even if you’ve admitted that 45, you’re not going to retain 45. Every year you admit 45 and you only retain maybe 32 of them. That’s a 13 student gap. That 13 student gap over four years adds up. Now you wind up with a 52 student gap. Our system is so structured that we only look at what comes in, and not the totality. So we managed enrollment by saying, “This is the amount of students that’s going to come in.” Not how many students we retain, or how many students we’re actually serving. That’s a very different model.

JRM: And is that very different than most other colleges are doing?

Dr. Howard: Oh, yes. Yes, the strategy that we’ve been using was developed back in the mid-1990’s, and we haven’t changed it. I was in graduate school in the mid 1990’s. Admissions was very different in the 1990’s, but we’re still recruiting the same way. You know, for a person to write a letter of recommendation back then meant something because it was part of the process. Well now, testing is so much more sophisticated. And so we had all these boulders in our admissions funnel that didn’t make a lot of sense. We actually function like a highly selective private school.

JRM: And we don’t seem to have that luxury.

Dr. Howard: We could tell that in enrollment. We’re not a highly selective institution, but that’s the way we view ourselves. When you get directly admitted into a program, that’s what Harvard does. In highly selective Ivy League schools, you get admitted directly into the college of business, or the college of liberal arts, and that’s where you spend all of your time. Well publics aren’t functioning that way — you’ve got to have a lower division. For one, as a public institution, we can’t survive if we say we’re only going to take this level of student because there’s not 5,000 students like that, especially when you have 64 SUNY’s all vying for the same students.

JRM: Right.

Dr. Howard: So what is your ability to function on what your business model actually is? I’ll give you an example of this. MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) has been around for decades, but its always been this dark, sinister way of fighting. Well, then the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) comes around and makes it entertainment. Now, you have UFC fighters who are superstars, because they finally announced that this should be entertainment, and not some type of sinister event. Once you acknowledge who you are you begin to focus on that. You begin to operate in a different way. And for me, when you talk about using a blue ocean strategy as an institution, we have to announce who we actually are.

JRM: And obviously we’re not a highly-selective private institution, how do we define who we are? How do I say that?

Dr. Howard: That becomes the challenge. I’ve heard people here say that we are a public Ivy. Are we really?

JRM: That’s been Geneseo’s story for a long time.

Dr. Howard: And that’s who we compare ourselves with. We’re comparing ourselves with that but our structure isn’t in place to address that. And so that’s why enrollment has been going down, because there’s a bit of an identity crisis. The crisis is that we say that we’re someone, but we’re not providing the services or operating that way.  We put structures in place to operate in that way, but those aren’t the people we’re attracting. Part of my job is to say, “No, the average student here is a working class student who’s parents make less than $100,000, and about 50% have parents who don’t have college degrees.” That’s who we are. That’s who Fredonia is. When you look at our community, that’s what Fredonia stands for. They’re working class, hard-working people who’ve made a living in a trade or a profession, who may not necessarily have gotten a degree. That’s who we are. Let’s start embracing that. That is okay.

JRM: Now, I just want to play devil’s advocate, because specifically in academics, there are programs that want more and more prestige and are trying to get the most highly-selective students here.

Dr. Howard: Correct.

JRM: I imagine you would get backlash from that.

Dr. Howard: Yeah. But the issue with that is students aren’t going to go places where the faculty are not, and the more prestigious faculty are making significantly more money, and they come with a level of expertise that we simply can’t afford. So that’s what I’m saying — we have a model in place based on wanting to be prestigious, but we don’t have the structure in place in order to do that. Students want to attend programs that are accredited, and there are several programs that are going through the accreditation process. So we have to come to some level of honesty, and begin to tell the true story of how we’ve evolved.  I give a great example of the University of Washington. In the late eighties, early nineties, the University of Washington was at best a regional, comprehensive school. Only about 13,000 students — you’d equate them with something like a Buffalo State. Then all of a sudden they won a national championship in football in 1991, and they had this huge infusion of funds from alumni who were very successful. All of a sudden they won in football and they start getting $50, $60 million dollar donations, and they start asking, “How can we use this money to make other money?” So they hired one of the best professors in the world in biology, one in medicine, and one in each of a few other sciences. What they found was that the best professors in the world had all these other grants, so they brought all this money in with them. Then they begin to hire graduate students and other people to build other things. So you went from a school who, less than 30 years ago, was a regional comprehensive school, that now has one of the highest endowments for public colleges in the country. They have all these resources because they said, “We’re going to accept who we are. This is where we can compete.” Rather than being an afterthought in the Pacific Northwest, and rather than trying to be like a UC Berkeley, they hired one person in each of these areas, and they began to get known in those things. That’s why you have a lot of the tech companies start in the Seattle area, because the school began to say, “We’re going to support you to be the best at who you are. We’re going to support you, we’re going to give you the resources.” And then as students graduate they begin to give back because the school invested in them. That’s something we kind of have to look at. How do we create an environment where you want to give back to an institution? But it all starts with pride.

JRM: And that’s where you come back to what you first said about being an athletics-based…

Dr. Howard: Being an athletic-driven and athletic-influenced student experience. It would help a lot. UB (University at Buffalo), if you look at them before they had football you’d often confuse them with Buff State. They got football, and even though the football team isn’t the best, it gets the name out there. I was in South Florida when our main campus was 19,000. Now there’s 62, 63,000, and the only difference was they had a football team. Over a three-year period they started bringing in big names from other conferences, like Syracuse in the Big East. Even though they were losing, they got the name out there, and enrollment just kept going up. Because the name got out there, and that’s the part that I want to use athletics for — just to get the name out there. Get the name out there, get people more excited about coming to campus, because once you come to campus you’re sold. This is a beautiful place, it has a wonderful story, but how do you get people here? How do you get people to exit 59? That’s the goal.

JRM: In New York, there’s not a lot of reason to come this way.

Dr. Howard: But why not make it that way? You would not have been going to College Station, Pennsylvania if it wasn’t for Penn State. You would not have been going to Iowa City, Iowa if it wasn’t for the University. We have a unique situation. Once you leave Buffalo, and all the way down to Ohio and Pittsburgh, there’s really not a school who said, “I want to take control, and I want to be known as a destination for that area.” That’s the blue ocean strategy that I want to implement.

JRM: And I want to ask again about serving this working-class population, maybe even kids who normally wouldn’t think about going to college, isn’t there some prestige in being the best at that?

Dr. Howard: Yes! Absolutely, and that’s what I’m saying. We can be the best at something. Let’s just announce who we are. Imagine if we can validate that we’re the best school at taking students that have not traditionally gone to college, not because they didn’t have the skills, just because their parents simply didn’t think about it in that way. We become the destination site for good students, and some of them are great, who just didn’t have college as part of their aspiration, and becoming a transitional training ground for them. We can make a world of difference here, and I think that’s a niche that we can serve.


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