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3 ways to vet academic programs when labor market data isn’t enough

September 11, 2020

After seven-plus years of conducting market research to help schools launch or refresh graduate, adult, and online programs, we’ve reached replicable, tested approaches for just about every question.

Trying to fix a struggling master’s degree? We can do a 360-degree assessment to identify what aspects of your program design or marketing you can change to attract students. Want to find new opportunities for growth? Our market opportunity scan will surface program areas best aligned to your regional landscape. Our research emphasizes labor market intelligence because we know that in most cases, employment outcomes are what drive adult learners to enroll.

But some of the most interesting programs I’ve researched are those where the program’s value to students wasn’t grounded in an immediately available career outcome. Whether in an emerging field—such as Political Economy—or an area in which US job postings don’t exist—like Livestock Production Medicine for International Markets—labor market analysis isn’t always the best way to determine the viability of a program. And programs like these have allowed me to consider new ways to answer our partners’ questions of program viability.

Example programs we’ve investigated where labor market intelligence isn’t enough to assess program viability

Livestock Production Medicine for International Markets

• Employer demand data unavailable for targeted international markets (e.g., China)

• Niche field with few competitors

Digital Curation

• First-of-its-kind degree curriculum without comparable degrees nationally

• Emerging employer demand

Individualized Medicine and Genomics

• Emerging field without historic employer demand or comparable degrees nationally

Political Economy

• Emerging undergraduate field with few comparable offerings

•Develops a liberal arts skill set with valuable competencies but not a direct labor market outcome

Here are three ways to explore the viability of a new or existing program, beyond labor market intelligence.

1. Critically assess competitors and leading programs to find opportunities for improvement

If there’s student need for and interest in a program, there’s typically something else aiming to serve that interest: a related program offered elsewhere, a professional association with a non-credit offering, a version at a more foundational or more advanced educational level. But if there’s opportunity for your program to succeed, what’s already out there isn’t serving your prospective students perfectly, whether it’s for reasons of geography, design, or recruitment. Our job as researchers can help find that gap.

So how do you decide which competitor programs to analyze? The right competitor programs to analyze depend on the program you’re considering. Sometimes, we’re exploring need for a fairly common program that will face significant competition from regional schools. You and your competitors will be equally accessible to students in terms of geography and recognition, meaning opportunities to distinguish your program will come in its design and recruitment.

Alternatively, some of our Professional and Adult Education Forum partners seek help with rare programs serving unaddressed needs, like in the early days of brewing science or medical cannabis. In those cases, you can aim to analyze competitor programs in your local or even regional markets—but you’ll also want to review relevant programs farther afield to ensure best-in-class development and launch.

In all cases, EAB researchers comb comparable programs’ materials such as webpages and brochures from the perspective of a prospective student: does this program minimize student costs and time to completion, thus maximizing their return on the educational investment? Does the curriculum meet students’ needs? Can students easily identify the program’s strengths and why they should enroll? A thorough understanding of your competitors’ program design and marketing messages helps you differentiate your program and position it more effectively to prospective students.

But in some cases, a partner institution needs us to go beyond design and recruitment features to dive even deeper on program operations: how many students are enrolling over time? How are program leaders ensuring students receive the necessary education, including offering opportunities for experiential learning? These questions require more digging, whether through conversations with directors of comparable programs or a deep dive into IPEDS data.

2. Assess the program against years of program development research across subjects and regions

We’ve helped hundreds of schools launch thousands of programs, building our expertise across program launches and re-launches. Throughout, we’ve learned our most valuable contribution is to ask the tough questions. Encourage your team to ask the following questions when thinking about the viability of a program:

  • Why would prospective students enroll in this offering? If it’s not because of a calculable impact on their career trajectory, will they perceive a return on their educational investment that justifies the enrollment costs?
  • While a high-quality and rigorous academic offering is important, a student-centric design and recruitment process may be even more so. Will students find the program accessible and attractive?
  • Is it realistic to think the offering can attract enough students to be financially viable? Or can the program be subsidized by other revenue sources as a service to our community? 

Sometimes, these tough questions have hard answers and the program isn’t a good fit. But more often, this approach enables university leaders to answer questions positively and confidently, even when extensive labor market data isn’t available.

3. Do your homework on the cutting edge

Five years ago, a partner asked for our help developing a program in individualized medicine and genomics. After some quick research into genomics, I realized not only that my AP Bio class was a long time ago, but also that we would be helping develop one of the first degrees in this emerging field.

Without existing programs for reference, my research team and I shifted our focus. We interviewed academic experts, especially those who were contributing to the rare classes or certificates in the field, about its potential as well as got deep in the industry literature. What we found was a field on the cusp of exploding with significant needs unaddressed by existing educational offerings.

Over the years, I’ve repeated this approach for emerging topics as we helped partners launch first-in-kind programs nationally and internationally. Go beyond your institutional walls to learn from academic experts nationwide in addition to seeking input from relevant industry partners. When investigating new subjects, the balance of academic expertise as well as industry projections help develop a realistic expectation for future program demand.

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