6 Tips to Treat College Like a Business

Before founding a tutoring company, I was a business strategy consultant.

Over time, I’ve become convinced that a firm understanding of business strategy development could benefit both students and parents as they navigate high school, college, graduate school, and beyond.

In other words, the same strategic ideas that result in successful businesses also result in successful students.

Treating Your Education Like a Small Business

I believe education is intrinsically valuable and an end in itself. We should pursue education simply because knowing more about the world and becoming better critical thinkers is clearly a part of what humans seem designed to do.

On the other hand, education takes time, costs money, and is also a means to some end. For example, instead of attending college for a year and paying $30,000, you could be working and making, say, $20,000. So, going to college for a year has an economic cost of $50,000. Many students take five years to graduate, a timeframe that makes the overall cost of this hypothetical education $250,000. For that sum, you want to get the most out of your education.

Our imaginary college student — let’s call her Anna — is in a unique position at the beginning of her freshman year. She is embarking upon a four- or five-year journey with an investment of $200–$250K. If she makes strategic decisions, could net a major, GPA, and resume that result in an enriching experience, the right type of knowledge, and better career prospects. That $250K could undoubtedly be worth it, or it could turn out to be a bad investment. That’s up to the student.

By applying principles of strategic thinking to educational decisions, parents and students can ensure that they get the highest return on their education investments, as measured in dollars, intellectual enrichment, personal brand, and general sense of accomplishment.

The overriding practice that almost all businesses (but few people) use is to apply strategies to be successful. There is a popular Harvard Business Review blog arguing that people are successful because of the strategies they use, not because of who they are — and this idea is backed up by dozens of studies.

A business explicitly chooses what to do to reach its goals, and students can use these same strategies to achieve academic success. Step one, then, is to understand some key principles of strategy development used by businesses.

Key Principles of Business Strategy Development

A good business strategy consultant helps clients develop a plan that contains some variation of a six-step process:

1. Create the Right Culture

What type of company do we want to be?

Creating the right culture means recognizing that businesses can decide what type of company they want to be, regardless of their size and success. For example, Apple’s culture is founded on the ideals of innovation, technology, and user experience.

How to do this: As soon as Anna chooses to treat her education like a growing business over which she has control, the chances that she will be successful increase. The culture to create is one of growing, learning from mistakes, and taking ownership over educational decisions.

Many students believe that they aren’t good at math or that they don’t like to read, and they feel trapped by their personal “culture” of being good or bad at something. This grows out of a fixed vs. growth mindset, something I’ve covered on the MyGuru blogs.

Businesses tend to believe that they can build or buy talent and capabilities, and then decide for themselves what type of company to be. Students can create their own “culture” instead of feeling locked into old stereotypes.

2. Set Specific Goals

How much revenue do we want to earn and by when? Why?

Setting specific goals is an obvious one, but many companies and people fail to do this. If you want to earn $1,000,000 in revenue within 12 months, you make different decisions than if you’d be satisfied with $500,000 (or have no goal at all).

How to do this: Businesses know that the more specific the goal, the better. Having specific goals means that you cannot hide from whether you’ve reached them.

Think about two students — Jack and Anna — taking pre-calculus. In the past, neither has done well in math. They are both hard workers and think they can earn a B if they try really hard, but generally they earn C’s.

Jack sets the goal of “trying my hardest this year,” while Anna says “I’m going to get an A- or better this year.” Who do you think is most likely to earn a B (or better)?

3. Build a Fact-Base of Information

What does it take to reach each major goal? What are the gaps between what is required and what we have at our disposal?

Poorly-run businesses allow intuition, guesses, and tradition to determine how decisions are made. Well-run businesses gather facts and analyze a situation before deciding what to do.

How to do this: A fact-base is reliable information that helps you make a good decision. I would argue that students often don’t gather this information. Instead, they rely on facts provided to them. They take the classes suggested by counselors and just follow their teachers’ instructions.

Students are conditioned to listen and follow directions. This may be sufficient through middle school, but in high school, a truly successful student will ask questions, seek opinions, and dive more deeply into topics. Let’s apply this concept to getting a good grade in math class.

Most people would read what’s assigned, show up to class, do the homework, and study for tests. Sounds like the right approach on the surface …

But, what other facts could be gathered? There’s a lot to discover about how to do well in a math class that a teacher doesn’t share explicitly on the first day of class.

For example:

  • How much do quizzes, homework, and tests count for your final grade? Are there projects for extra credit?

  • What does the teacher find more important, the readings or the homework problems? How does it all fit together?

  • Should you read the chapter before the class or after the class to have a better chance of understanding it?

  • Is the teacher available outside of class to provide help?

  • Does the teacher recommend any supplementary resources if you’re struggling?

  • Which resources does the teacher draw on to create tests?

When you ask questions like this, you won’t always receive answers. But when you do, you’ll have gathered valuable information to help you figure out how to do well in the class.

4. Develop Alternative Strategic Options

What options exist to build the capabilities or acquire the assets needed to beat the competition and reach our goal?

Likewise, poorly-run businesses commonly create “go vs. no-go” decisions. For example, someone will say, “We should develop a new product X.” Then, discussions will take place and information will be gathered to determine whether the answer is, “Yes, we should do it,” or, “No, we shouldn’t.”

Well-run businesses, on the other hand, make decisions by developing alternatives. They’ll consider the reasons behind why they want to make product X. So, while the first choice is to develop that product, they could also pursue other options that address those specific underlying needs.

How to do this: Great businesses consider alternatives, and so should students. Take choosing a major during college as an example. Many students don’t know what they want to major in, so they talk to their parents, friends, and (ideally) a counselor. And since they don’t just choose the first major that’s suggested, they may say they considered options. But rather than designing thoughtful, long-term options and comparing them, they consider various majors rapid-fire: Math? No. Chemistry? No. Physics? Yes. Done.

They are making a series of yes-or-no decisions, as opposed to considering and comparing long-term strategies.

As an alternative — to return to Anna — she could start by looking at the classes she must take for a specific major and research the common careers of people in that field. If she does this for three or four majors and then compares those, she may notice that she can design other options from these original, unique choices. She could, for example, major in business and take a range of math and science electives required for the “liberal arts” portion of her degree, a curriculum that would also enable her to keep open the option of taking the MCAT and going to medical school.

5. Evaluate Options Using Specific Criteria

What do we have to offer that the competition doesn’t? How can we gain an edge?

When businesses evaluate options, they use a principle called “market economics and competitive position.” For instance, when observing a successful company, it is critical to deconstruct its performance in the market that it is competing in. It may be a really profitable company because the market it competes in is really profitable. In other words, every other company that does what it does is also making a profit. Or, you could find that it’s really profitable despite the fact that it’s in a really tough market. In that case, it may have the best products or the best employees.

How to do this: Once you’ve developed some options, it’s important to establish which criteria are important, and then really try to evaluate options against those criteria, a practice that results in better decisions over time. Choosing a college is a great example of this process; many students seem to focus on U.S. News & World Report rankings to choose where they want to apply. If they were, instead, to establish some individual criteria, they would realize that rankings and prestige constitute two among many factors.

For example, Anna could also consider:

  • Ranking/prestige in potential majors
  • Size
  • Distance
  • Cost
  • Activities
  • Ability to stand out and position yourself for the future

Let’s look at a real-life example: My college roommate, Rebecca, was a star in high school — valedictorian, a varsity runner, and more. She was accepted to several Ivy League universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, which she preferred because she wanted to study business.

For many high school students, once you’re accepted to several Ivies, your search narrows to only those colleges. But not for her. Since she was from Indiana, she’d received a full scholarship to Indiana University, which, with the eighth best–ranked undergraduate business program in the U.S., could hold its own in business relative to University of Pennsylvania’s top-ranked program. Moreover, IU was free for Rebecca. It was also closer, larger, had more activities, and offered a better opportunity to excel relative to her peers. Instead of myopically focusing on the Ivy League brand and the ranking of the school overall, Rebecca evaluated her options on a broader level and chose a different path.

6. Make a Plan

What option best balances cost, benefits, and risk? What is the specific plan to implement your strategy?

Finally, successful businesses make concrete plans. They set goals at a high level, and these trickle down so each person associated with the plan knows what she needs to do to help the company succeed.

How to do this: To accomplish a goal and implement a strategy, you need to write out your plan for doing so and hold yourself accountable. In college, this means going beyond academics to include projects, activities, and the internship-search process, as well as daily “plans” to stay productive. Every day, you should create a to-do list that moves you one day closer to reaching your longer-term goals.

Follow this link to learn more about SMART goal-setting by Noodle Expert Keith Carlson.

Wrap Up

Students have many opportunities to improve their performance in school through the application of business strategy principles. That said, don’t take these ideas to an extreme.

Obtaining a high school and college education is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about the world and yourself — don’t overdo the “set goals and be strategic” mantra. It’s OK to take a series of classes just because they seem interesting. You never know what passion will be sparked by some random class that doesn’t fit into your strategic academic plans. The trick is to balance structure, strategy, and planning with a more fluid approach to education that allows you to explore and let your curiously lead you to your best, most thoughtful future.

To look for the right fit for you, try the highly customizable Noodle search for high schools and colleges.

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