When I was a graduate school dean, faculty often approached me with creative new ideas for programs. Sometimes an idea would be on the outer edge of what is typically offered—innovative or unusual, but also untested in the market. In cases like this, I knew that we’d have a hard time recruiting enough students to ensure the program was viable and self-sustaining. I found myself pushing faculty members to think more commercially about the programs that they were designing.
And that’s a lesson that many universities would benefit from today: in today’s highly competitive graduate enrollment environment, a “build it and they will come” approach won’t cut it. Leaping into a new program offering without testing its market viability can lead to expensive lessons.
When shopping for programs, students often don’t place much value on some of the special features that faculty spend so much time designing. Prospective students put a great deal of trust in faculty: if you’re offering a particular master’s degree, they tend to assume that it’s academically robust. And while unique features can contribute to an exceptional student experience, it can be very difficult to convey the nuances of that experience to prospective students. The things they will appreciate as alumni are often hard for them to appreciate when they are choosing a program.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t include those features in your program. Instead, I’m saying that to build a competitive, high growth program, you need to ensure that you can market your offering based on a few key factors that matter most to your prospective students.
The “Golden Triangle” of program design
So, how do students pick programs? Look to the “Golden Triangle” of features that matter most: affordability, flexibility, and time to completion.
Examine the levers that can increase the competitiveness of your program
Schools have a variety of levers that can help them make their programs more marketable with respect to speed to completion, flexibility, and affordability. To evaluate the competitive position of your program, consider the Golden Triangle relative to these levers in two ways. First, where does your program stand with respect to this item relative to your competitors? And second, are you communicating each of your advantages clearly to your prospects?
Let’s look at a few of the program design levers that can have a large impact on the Golden Triangle—and your market position.
Beyond the Golden Triangle: program name and admissions requirements
While the Golden Triangle is a helpful framework to ensure that you’re focusing on the aspects of student experience that will have the greatest impact in the market, there are a few other program design factors that schools should also take into consideration. Namely, your program title and admissions requirements.
When choosing a name, consider the online search terms that prospective students are researching that could help surface your program. In addition, it’s critical to ensure that your admissions requirements give you just enough information to make a sound admissions decision, without creating unnecessary barriers that might deter prospective students. While you’ll need to consider and balance a number of factors while designing programs, focus on the ones that prospective students care about most.
Removing hurdles, improving the program’s life-fit, and adding popular features will ultimately increase the number of prospects who will take serious look at your program. A larger prospect pool can drive larger revenue, greater selectivity, or both. Thinking about these items from the perspective of a prospect can make a dramatic impact on the success and long-term viability or your programs.
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