How to Disrupt Higher Ed: Cues from Dating, Disney, and Digital

February 25, 2016  

As the digital and cultural landscape continues to evolve, it’s critical that we (and our clients) grow along with it. This is especially relevant in higher education, where change tends to happen slower than elsewhere. So, how would we disrupt the industry, leaning on the latest technology? Here are some of our thoughts, borrowing ideas from smart brands that are already killing it.

What if choosing a college were like online dating?

The admissions process today feels a lot like dating, with colleges and prospects flirting over email and making repeated attempts to woo each other. It’s also just as daunting as finding true love. We say: there’s got to be an easier way to match colleges with best-fit students.

Maybe we could follow the lead of, and change how colleges and their prospective student soulmates find one another. Yes, there are “matchmaking” services for students today, but they can be expensive, and their digital experiences are clunky (we’re looking at you, College Board).

What we need is an online environment that feels fun and engaging, as it guides students along their journey to the right college. There could even be niche offerings based on types of schools, à la or And let’s not forget Tinder, whose simple, intuitive swipe interface would be great for building or culling an initial set of schools to consider.

The takeaway: Let’s figure out how to draw on content and user experience to help students find the best-fit school, and vice versa.

What if colleges treated applicants like people, not like numbers?

As technology progresses, we know that it will continue to drive change in education, and we’re pretty stoked about that. Turns out, so is Gen Z. Research indicates that students’ walls around privacy will fall when they realize that, by providing the right information during their search, they’ll get ultra-personalized content and experiences in return.

One brand that nails this (and always has) is Disney. My Disney Experience is a hub for planning your perfect Disney trip, with an app you can use on site to make dining reservations, get updates on attractions, and track wait times for rides. At the park, you can even opt for a MagicBand bracelet that acts as your room key, customizes ride experiences for you, and more. Bonus for Disney: They can aggregate data over time to build even more robust profiles of their customers, which further improves the experience.

The takeaway: While going to college is no vacation, we’d love to see colleges give students access to special content based on their specific interests.

What if colleges focused more on the experience, and less on the facts?

Today, a college’s website is its information hub: basically a repository of all the facts that prospective students and parents need. Most of the other communications we see are print materials that duplicate these facts.

What’s missing? The actual experience of being there. Most virtual tours feel generic: there’s got to be a better way to showcase campus from afar. And what about once you’re on site for a visit? How might digital experiences augment what’s happening physically? Imagine digital content that changes based on your location on campus: like an app or another experience that highlights athletics when you’re near the football field or shows today’s menu when you’re close to the cafeteria.

Sephora is killing it with integrated technology in its stores that blends the digital and physical worlds. With the ColorIQ system, store associates can recommend products based on a customer’s unique complexion. This information is then tied to the customer’s online account and paired with product suggestions from Sephora’s inventory. So the customer receives instant feedback in store and is inspired to try new products while browsing at home.

The takeaway: Colleges have the facts covered. It’s time to tie the digital and physical worlds together to inspire prospects at every turn—both from their computer screens and in person.

What if any student could take any class from any school?

Think about your closet. You have clothes from a variety of brands, some of which you probably purchased online, some in store. Our worlds are multi-brand, multi-channel, and multi-experience. Yet most college experiences are confined to one school and one talent pool of faculty. Imagine if students could stitch together their ideal experiences based on the best programs, classes, and faculty across a group of institutions.

That sounds a lot like Class Pass, which offers access to a network of fitness studios so that members can develop individualized workout schedules based on their interests, availability, and location. Essentially, the service removes barriers related to trying new classes, which creates a frictionless way to experiment with fitness. Ultimately, the “secret sauce” of Class Pass’s success is that it delivers both personalization (for members) and brand awareness (for fitness facilities).

The takeaway: Students want to hand-select the best, most relevant classes and contexts for their education. It’s time to facilitate this in a seamless way.

What if your advisor were really your financial concierge?

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the college application process is navigating tuition and aid. Students and parents feel overwhelmed. Financial aid offices struggle with limited resources. And most of the time, the final college decision rests on what students can afford, rather than what’s the best fit. What students need is a personal concierge: someone to arrange everything from the uplifting (consultations, customized financial estimates, access to funding opportunities) to the mundane (organizing paperwork, reminders for key deadlines).

We can take a cue from Cloe, a service that offers curated suggestions for restaurants and other businesses—via text message. Cloe responds to your text with a cheery and sometimes even empathetic tone. The ready access of mobile communications resonates with the younger, tech-savvy demographic of today’s prospective students, and the programmatic nature of the responses allows Cloe to deliver personalization on a larger scale.

The takeaway: The experience of funding an education should be the most personal part of the application process. Let’s shift the advisor role to focus on inspiration, reassurance, research, and advice.