Looking Before They Leap

In theory, it sounded like an interesting partnership. American University’s Kogod School of Business wanted to team up with the university's School of International Service, building a graduate degree program that would cater to idealistic students who might not otherwise be drawn to the business school.

April 27, 2010

In theory, it sounded like an interesting partnership. American University’s Kogod School of Business wanted to team up with the university's School of International Service, building a graduate degree program that would cater to idealistic students who might not otherwise be drawn to the business school.

Lawrence P. Ward, the business school’s associate dean for academic programs, was charged with putting forward the initial proposals for a degree. After discussions with faculty, Ward took a draft proposal to his provost, suggesting a master’s degree in global management and international relations. The draft suggested a program that would be a training ground for liberal arts graduates with limited work experience, who might pursue careers at embassies, non-governmental organizations or consulting firms. What the draft didn’t really say, however, was whether any students would be interested.

“Long story short, coming up with an interesting degree program is probably the easiest part,” he said. “Whether or not it’s relevant to students beyond our own minds is a question we hadn’t answered.”

To assess the viability of the new degree, American has hired an outside higher education consulting firm to conduct intensive market research that university officials say is unprecedented on the campus. The firm, SimpsonScarborough, surveyed more than 13,000 students at American and elsewhere, seeking to determine interest levels. American wanted to know what types of students would be drawn to this degree, and students were even asked to rank the names they favored for the degree.

Two other degree programs – one in sustainability and another in social entrepreneurship – were also market-tested. The research will help drive decisions about how to market the programs, and whether they're worth starting in the first place.

As budget cuts force institutions across the country to grapple with whether to retain under-enrolled and struggling programs, the idea of advanced market research certainly seems to make sense. That’s not to say, however, that some faculty won’t be uneasy about tying programmatic offering decisions too narrowly to financial considerations.

“There are some good philosophical disagreements or positions that say we don’t need market forces to tell us what we should or should not be teaching to students. And I think that’s true for many of our degree programs – our university requirements in math and writing [for instance],” Ward said. “But in graduate education for a tuition-dependent institution, we have to have some measure of commercial success in addition to the artistic successes. I don’t think marketing research in itself is incompatible with academic mission.”

Elizabeth Scarborough, chief executive officer and partner with SimpsonScarborough, said the Washington, D.C.-based firm has increasingly been called upon to assess the marketability of programs before they are approved on college campuses. While some level of this research isn’t new to higher education, Scarborough said the depth of it has increased in tandem with growing concerns about limited resources.

“The issue is that people recognize that if their programs aren’t successful, they are wasting their time [introducing them] anyway,” she said. “Years ago no one would have cared if there was demand for the program. They would have thrown it out there like they were throwing spaghetti against the wall.”

The tough part for American University and others that take this approach, however, will be to show a willingness to abandon exciting programs for which there is little or no market. Those involved with American’s research say they are ready to walk away from projects popular with faculty if the survey returns – among other factors – are unfavorable.

“This represents a major shift in degree development,” said Lara Kline, director of marketing and communications for the Kogod School of Business. “From a philosophical standpoint, degrees can no longer be made and offered in a vacuum.”

As a general rule, professional schools may be less resistant to a market-driven approach. But even the business school has been slow to apply some of the lessons it teaches students to its own process of program approval, Kline said

“As a business school we teach strategy; we teach market research,” she said. “But the reality is what business schools do when deciding what to bring to market does not reflect the rigor of what is taught in the classroom.”

Some of the nation's savviest colleges have been doing market research on new programs for years, according to Rick Hesel, principal with Art & Science Group, LLC, in Baltimore. As a general rule, however, colleges have typically done minimal research before launching new programs, and the economic downturn doesn't appear to have changed that in Hesel's view.

"It's more often the case than not that institutions launch new programs without taking a careful assessment of what market demand will be," he said. "And in this current [economic] climate, I don't think there's been a dramatic shift in the recognition that this is important, although there should be."

Know Your Audience

Approving degree programs that are relatively new to a discipline presents its own set of challenges. When the MGH Institute of Health Professions began considering a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree in 2006, there were still a lot of unanswered questions about what types of students would be drawn to the program.

In 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing declared a goal of establishing the DNP as the accepted credential for advanced practice nursing by 2015. Debate remained in the nursing profession, however, about whether a move beyond master's-level education was necessary. While MGH wanted to ensure its offerings were up-to-date, there was concern about plunging into an untested market with questionable levels of student interest.

“Our nursing leadership saw where things were headed and they wanted to make sure we were [among] the first out of the gate to have a DNP program,” said Christopher Hartley, executive director of institutional advancement. “But we also wanted to make sure we didn’t rush and open it just for the sake of being first on the block.”

Before launching its program in 2007, the MGH Institute worked with SimpsonScarborough. The institute’s primary goal was to discern how best to market a program like the DNP. That meant learning about the types of students who would be interested in the first place, and getting a sense of how much they already knew about the DNP degree.

In surveying prospective students, the institute learned that most – 70 percent – were aware of the 2015 goal set by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Marketers also learned that, of those interested in the program, salary improvement ranked fourth among the motivating factors. The top reason for entering such a program, respondents said, was to enhance personal knowledge.

The information culled from surveys helped the MGH Institute to tailor its advertising approach. Advertisements placed in nursing journals and, more recently, on LinkedIn, target nurses of the experience levels most likely to be interested, Hartley said. “For us [the research] was ultimately probably a little less about is this a viable program, though certainly if the research had come back and said this would be a complete disaster, we would have pulled back.”

Asking students about new programs can be tricky business, said Hesel, whose clients include major research institutions, liberal arts colleges and professional schools. "It's very difficult to go out and ask prospective students whether they would be interested in a program they've never heard about," he said. "Those kinds of answers are not very reliable."

When Art & Science does market research for new programs, the firm often looks to other institutions that have launched similar programs or consults the Bureau of Labor Statistics to see where demand for particular fields is likely to grow. There are still plenty of colleges that don't do this kind of homework, however.

"It happens all the time," Hesel said. "New programs are launched without any sense of whether there's going to be demand. It absolutely shocks me."



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