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To design high-growth graduate programs, use the “Golden Triangle” principle

Design your programs to stand out in a crowded market

December 10, 2020

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.

  • Affordability

    Does your program offer value that students feel they won’t get elsewhere? Can they clearly understand the return on education you offer?

  • Speed to completion

    How quickly can your program be completed? How long might students need to be out of the workforce or balancing enrollment with other priorities?

  • Flexiblity

    Does your program offer options that fit with students’ lifestyles? Also, does it give them options for what, and how, to study?

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.

  • Scheduling and delivery mode

    Your scheduling and delivery mode choices will have a large effect on both speed to completion and flexibility. To make your program as attractive as possible to prospects, ensure that your schedule makes time to completion as short as possible while still conferring necessary skills. And consider whether your students might be best served by online, hybrid, or part-time enrollment options. All other things being equal, part-time students will select a program that can be completed in spite of shifting work schedules, a move, or a job change.

  • Credit count and prerequisites

    Credit count and prerequisites will primarily affect your program’s speed to completion and affordability. To best position your program, be sure to compare your credit requirements and prerequisites to those of competitors. And to maximize your potential audience, ensure that your prerequisites require the minimum education that your students will need to succeed. At many schools, program and course prerequisites have not been re-evaluated for many years. Reviewing these with a critical eye is time well spent.

  • Pricing

    To help ensure that your program feels affordable to students, it’s important to compare your tuition and fees to those of your top local and national competitors. When discussing price on your website, it’s important to be clear and transparent about total program costs—don’t make the prospective student search for it or do their own math to calculate it. From there, you’ll need to be able to effectively articulate the return on education that students can expect from your program. Be sure that you’re clearly describing the personal and career benefits of pursuing a program, through alumni testimonials and statistics about career placement.

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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