As budgets become increasingly strained with every passing year, higher education institutions are turning to market research firms to investigate the viability of their current and potential academic programs. Many institutions require feasibility research as part of the program approval process, and for good reason. At RMS, we routinely conduct these studies, and have learned that there are several factors to consider when implementing program feasibility research.
- First and foremost, NOT conducting program feasibility research is often more expensive than the market research investment. We’ve seen it many times-an internal stakeholder with a vested interest wants to create a new program, but feels that research is not necessary or has the perception that market research will be too costly. The danger in this approach is that the college will be offering a program that may not fit into current and projected labor market needs. This sets the graduates up for disappointment (and lack of return on their investment) when they try to enter a stagnant or saturated workforce. This approach also means that substantial financial resources will be attributed to the creation of a new academic program without the back up support that market research can provide, in turn jeopardizing the credibility of the college and its offerings. It is for these reasons that many colleges and universities are turning to market research firms as part of their initial scoping activities for new programs. There are a few approaches we recommend to clients undertaking this research.
- First, conduct a competitive analysis of your local competition. What other colleges and universities are offering similar programs at the same level (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctorate, Certificate, etc)? Figure out the content these competitors are offering, their class schedule, number of credit hours in the program, tuition cost, and other factors that are going to matter to prospective students. An informed market research firm will have the tools necessary to investigate your competition and gain the competitive insight necessary to determine if another college or university already holds a substantial portion of the market share (which would tell you that competition will be steep for that program).
- Next, investigate the labor market demand through occupational supply and demand research. The market research firm will determine the current and projected demand of professions that graduates of the potential program would qualify for, ensuring that the market is not inundated and there will be job opportunities available for graduates. This data will bolster the credibility of the program with internal stakeholders, as well as provide valuable marketing material for prospective students.
- After the first wave of secondary research is completed, we recommend surveying the prospective student population to gauge interest in the potential program. It is also valuable to know the needs of the potential student population with regard to class schedule, pricing sensitivity, etc. For example, if you’re hoping to offer an MBA program, there’s a good chance that night and weekend options will be desirable for some prospective students (many of them may have a full time job during business hours, have family obligations, etc), but that is dependent on other lifestyle and geographical factors that need to be considered when determining the best audience for the program. By knowing the needs of the prospective population during the setup phase of program creation, the college is in a stronger position to garner internal administrative support and external interest.
- Upon the completion of all research activities, ask the market research firm to compile their findings in a format that will be conducive to your internal stakeholders. Do you need a lengthy report with in-depth explanations? Or would a PowerPoint deck be more valuable, allowing you to use the information in a presentation? Determine the audience for whom the material will be presented, and shape the reporting around their preferences.
- The last piece of advice is not related to research, but rather to nurture relationships with internal administrative staff. Being cognizant of other stakeholders’ agendas is often THE most important factor to preventing roadblocks in the approval process after research has been presented. The research will speak for itself, but understanding the approval process and what is important to all involved is the driving factor for a smooth academic approval.
If you’re interested in conducting a program feasibility study, contact our Business Development Director Sandy Baker at SandyB@RMSresults.com or by calling 315-635-9802.
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