Despite much gnashing of teeth about the value, flaws, benefits, and perils of online degrees, online higher education is here to stay. For institutions contemplating taking their first degrees online, or those interested in growing their online footprint, forethought and planning are critical. Through targeted, efficient market research, savvy institutions can help ensure long-term success and return on the institutional investment. Following are three steps to consider before going online or launching new online degrees.
1. Assess Market Demand
Measuring market demand—whether for hybrid cars, gourmet dog biscuits, or the latest smart phone—is an iffy science. This is especially true for an expensive, non-product such as a college degree. Before expending resources, energy, and the institution’s brand capital to launch an online degree, it is critical to assess market demand.
There are many ways to gather this information. Studying search volume for degree-related keywords is one such approach. A skilled digital marketing firm can help with this. Beyond keyword volume, there are multiple sources of useful data from the US government:
- Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Department of Labor
- Census Bureau
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)
These secondary information sources allow researchers to extrapolate which degrees will be in demand to meet future labor market needs, and are readily available at no cost.
However, none of these data points truly predict market demand for a given degree at your institution. This can only come from primary, institution-specific research generated by an unbiased, independent market researcher. Through a combination of qualitative and quantitative primary research with key institutional stakeholders, an unbiased market researcher can determine how your audiences will react to a new online degree.
2. Assess the Competition
There are so many online MBA programs offered by US-based institutions that nobody has an accurate count of them. Of the nearly 700 RN-BSN programs in the US, more than 400 are offered at least partially online. While demand for these programs remains strong, competition is intense and will increase as more colleges and universities take comparable degrees online in the search for larger enrollments and more revenue.
When exploring competitors for online degrees, most colleges and universities use their peer and aspirational institution list for ground programs. However, absent geographic boundaries, this list is inadequate. Many not-for-profit universities also mistakenly ignore for-profits when considering the competition, which they do at their own peril. For-profits generally have large marketing budgets, which gives them a distinct advantage when marketing to non-traditional learners.
As the number of online degree programs increases, institutions must also consider the level of competition in the digital marketing space. Digital marketing channels, including organic and paid search, historically generate the majority of leads for online degree programs, but this space is becoming increasingly cutthroat and expensive. A sophisticated competitive analysis will analyze the strength of competitors in the major search engines (Google and Bing), as well as the average cost-per-click (CPC) for specific keywords related to the degree program. This analysis gives institutions an immediate picture of their ability to compete in the digital marketing space and helps determine the marketability of a potential online degree.
Sound, unbiased market research in the form of a competitive analysis will help ensure that the full universe of competitors is explored and carefully considered before launching an online degree.
3. Assess Internal Capabilities
Universities have three options for going or growing online:
- use existing resources
- partner with an Online Program Management firm
- partner with point providers to fill gaps as needed
Most institutions opt to go it alone, and often leave the starting gate woefully ill equipped for success. In so doing, they risk alienating key stakeholders, damaging brand equity, missing enrollment projections, and in some cases, the public embarrassment of killing the online degree altogether.
Following are the three operational areas that an institution should carefully assess before launching an online degree:
1. Marketing: Not-for-profit colleges and universities, rarely expert at marketing in general, usually lack the expertise to effectively market their online degrees. Marketing an online degree is more complicated than a ground-based degree because,
- the universe of prospects is vastly larger
- traditional marketing (print, broadcast) is much less relevant
- social media and public relations campaigns are even more vital
- digital marketing is evolving rapidly and growing more competitive
A candid assessment of in-house marketing capabilities will inform what may be the most critical element of an online degree strategy. An experienced, unbiased researcher with no political investment can candidly report what’s missing and how to find the needed expertise to compete effectively.
2. Recruitment: Many institutions falsely assume that their current admissions team can handle thousands of new inquiries atop their current workload. They try to service prospective online learners from different time zones (or continents) during normal business hours. And they often lack an understanding of the needs of adult learners in general, much less online adult learners.
The answer isn’t necessarily building an on-campus call center (in fact, that’s often a mistake) or outsourcing all recruitment to a call center. Instead, an unbiased assessment of human, financial, and physical resources will help determine the institution’s internal capacity to handle recruitment for new online degrees.
3. Instructional Design: Online course delivery has evolved to a very sophisticated place–no longer will a PDF of the syllabus and videos of a lecturing professor suffice. Courses should be vetted by an external party and must be ADA compliant. The institution’s technology infrastructure also needs to be studied to ensure that it is both robust and user friendly.
Instructional designers, like digital marketers, are in great demand and command higher salaries than smaller institutions can afford. Addressing current instructional design needs and infrastructure is vital to engendering buy-in from faculty, without which any online degree is unlikely to succeed in the marketplace.
In all three operational areas, the words “candid” and “unbiased” appear. It is difficult to have an internal entity assess capacity to launch and grow online degrees due to the political nature of academe. Finding an external researcher with the freedom and autonomy to provide a—yes, candid and unbiased—assessment of current capabilities is money well spent, as it can be the difference between a successful launch and a failed online program.
Scott H. Levine, PhD brings 20 years of higher education experience, having worked with more than 100 colleges and universities. His areas of expertise include market research and online educational delivery. He currently focuses on helping non-profit colleges and universities assess their readiness to go online or grow their online footprint. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.