The Competitive Edge

Today’s higher-education market is tough. The increase in high-quality distance-learning programs, changing expectations of prospective students and their parents, and economic changes are putting campus administrations under increasing pressure to improve their institutions and compete more fiercely for students. In the post-9/11 world, a high-quality safety program is a must for any institution wishing to maximize its competitive edge in a tougher market. Tighter budgets make this an even more challenging proposition.

Some colleges and universities spend incredible sums in their efforts to recruit high-quality students, only to drive droves of them away because of concerns for safety. These potential customers often do not voice their concerns. Instead, they just go to another institution where safety is given more of a priority. Those expensive full-color brochures and costly admissions office budgets can be quickly undermined by national coverage about a major safety incident. Any higher-ed public relations official would agree that it better to prevent an incident than to try to use their PR skills to minimize the damage of a major incident.

More campus administrations are learning that one of the best ways to realize their vision for growth and improvement is to develop a truly world-class safety and emergency preparedness program. Though difficult to quantify, there are clearly students and parents who opt to shop elsewhere due to indications that particular institutions are able to demonstrate that safety is a priority.

Sharp campus administrators are also realizing that in the post-9/11 world, a high-quality school safety and emergency preparedness program can be an excellent way to attract students and parents in an ever increasingly competitive market. Especially for schools in tough markets with fierce competition, a top-flight safety program speaks volumes about the quality of a school and the added value students and parents receive for their significant investment. Many administrators and boards are realizing that a mediocre safety program can turn parents away from an otherwise excellent institution.

Parents increasingly notice whether a prospective school is equipped with automatic external defibrillators, security cameras, first aid kits, emergency telephone call stations, and sharp security and police personnel. No father or mother wants to send his or her children to an unsafe college or university.

Prospective students also often notice these things. I know a bright young woman who had narrowed her search for a university to two schools in order to pursue her master’s degree. As a victim of a gang rape as a child, safety was an important consideration to her. She noticed the campus safety officers at one school did not carry guns, and this concerned her. She selected the other university — located in the same community — because she felt that safety was a façade for one institution while the other was better prepared to defend her. How many other students have made similar choices?

As many people in our society have been victims of violent crimes, many more have likely made these decisions. The“old school” thought process was for many that parents and students who noticed that university safety personnel are armed would be more likely to come to the conclusion that a school was unsafe is being replaced by a more realistic view that many people do not feel safe without armed officers to protect them. From a marketing standpoint, do uniforms and the vehicles driven by safety personnel at your institution send a clear message that safety is a priority? If not, there may be an unintended message that the institution lacks quality because people do not matter to the institution.

Higher-education officials are learning that trying to keep incidents quiet to portray an image of safety instead of focusing on the actual level of safety can create serious and irreparable damage to a school’s image. Some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the nation have allowed this approach to catastrophically degrade their reputation. At the same time, other schools are growing and improving by taking advantage of the opportunity to build public support, more fully engage their students in the safety process, reduce fiscal waste and improve the learning environment by focusing on a truly world-class safety program. There is perhaps no better way attract the best and brightest students than to gain their trust, respect, and confidence by earning an A+ on safety.

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety and can be reached through the Safe Havens Website at

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at