Research: Conducting Market Research for New Program Development and Efficient Growth

As competition grows among higher education institutions, acquiring market share becomes more difficult, and therefore more valuable. For colleges and universities, one of the main avenues of market growth is new program development. However, many leaders encounter inefficiencies, such as wasteful spending and low program enrollment, in their pursuit of creating a robust and profitable program portfolio. Helix Education and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) have partnered on a study of continuing education metrics to address why these inefficiencies occur and how they can be avoided. This research comes as part of a larger effort on the data-driven state of higher ed decision making.

This research seeks to identify some common mistakes education providers make while implementing their program development strategy and to outline optimal market research strategies for new program development. Many institutions do not approach the task of new program development with a formalized system that includes the use of both complete and uniform metrics. The survey data indicates that the top outcomes utilized when deciding the development of new programs are data driven (revenue and job market demand), yet many institutions are still too reliant upon subjective, intuition-based decision making.

The study reveals a clear disconnect between the goals of education providers in developing new programs and the actions these providers carry out in this process of new program development. The data also indicates wide-spread inefficiency in budgeting. Budgeting for market research, namely feasibility research, may help education providers avoid the inefficient use of resources and time.

Examining the mistakes many education providers make in the process of new program development reveals insight into how these mistakes can be avoided. The disconnection between the goals and actions of education providers in new program development stems from the fact that the goals are data-driven, and the actions are intuition-driven. To eliminate this gap, the methods used to develop new programs should shift from intuition-based to primarily data-driven decision making. Institutions should seriously consider formalizing a process for new program development that incorporates robust market research.

UPCEA and Helix partnered to gather more data on a number of important topics related to higher education metrics. The survey was produced and conducted in February and March 2016. Most of respondents identified themselves as having leadership roles, with 62% indicating titles of program director or manager, or dean or other leader. Of the 480 individuals surveyed, 391 qualified under the following study categories:

  • Program development: 151
  • Online Program management: 88
  • Enrollment marketing: 74
  • Data/Analytics: 38
  • Enrollment operations: 32
  • Retention operations: 8

When referencing the joint Helix and UPCEA study, 151 individuals employed in some function of program development qualified and participated in questions related to new program development. All figures and data cited as 2016 Helix Survey on the following pages pertain to these 151 education professionals.

Summary of Key Findings

  • Forty-eight percent of respondents answered that they do not have a formalized system in place to guide new program development.
  • One-third indicated that they do not conduct formal market research for new program development.
  • None of the reasons given for not having a formalized system for program development were purely data driven, but rather they were intuition driven.
  • Conversely, the top two factors on which education providers base their new program development decisions are revenue opportunity and job market demand, both data-driven factors

Pitfalls in Program Development
Respondents were asked to report their steps for developing new programs and their driving factors for new program selection. Only 49% indicated that they have a formalized system in place to determine which new programs are ultimately developed.
With a lack of formalized systems in place for new program development, education providers are making decisions based on a number of subjective, non-data-driven factors. When asked why the provider had no formalized system in place, respondents answered that leadership/culture and the decision making of other professionals at their institution were the two biggest reasons at 26% and 21% respectively. Other reasons include the varying needs of different programs and the lack of precedent, both at 14%. None of these reasons reflect the use of data-driven methods, but rather a reliance on intuition when making programmatic decisions. The only semi-data-driven reason indicated was the existence of an informal approach of information gathering at 16%.

Respondents indicated that the top two factors in deciding which new programs are developed are revenue opportunity and job market demand, both data-driven metrics. This calls into question the accuracy of the intuition-driven approach many education providers currently use as an institution cannot accurately examine these inherently data-driven metrics by utilizing non-data driven approaches.

Almost one-third of respondents indicated that they do not conduct formal market research for new programs. These respondents have no concrete market data on which to base their decisions for developing new programs. Since the two main determining factors for new program development are inherently data driven, there is a clear disconnect between the driving factors of program development and the decision-making process for program development. An education provider cannot accurately examine data-driven factors without the use of data.

In addition to the disconnect between driving factors and decision making in program development, this research suggests another misstep many education providers make in the process of new program development: ineffective budgeting in regards to new program development. Forty-eight percent of respondents indicated that they do not set aside funds for new program development research. This lack of budgeting for important research such as feasibility studies may lead to inefficiency and waste during the creation and development of unviable programs. Proactively spending appropriate resources on feasibility research in the short term may save education providers many dollars (and headaches) down the road.

Potential Solutions
Most education providers seek to implement strategies that will reduce programmatic and operational inefficiencies. The data identified by this current study demonstrates a disconnect between the driving factors for new program development decision making and the manner in which education providers make these decisions. Almost half of the survey respondents indicated that they have no formal process for new program development, and of these, most indicated that they instead rely on intuition-based factors. This informal decision-making process is mismatched with the top two data-driven factors identified as desirable outcomes of program development: revenue and job market demand. Furthermore, almost one third of the respondents indicated that they do not conduct formal market research when considering new program development. Education providers who do not already do so should consider revising their method of selection and development of new programs to a data-driven methodology.

One additional gap identified by the research impacting the development of new programs is the lack of budgeting for market research. Feasibility research allows for education providers to avoid launching unsustainable programs, thus reducing waste and inefficiency. Education providers should budget for research as a formal part of their new program development process. Understanding the findings from this data will allow education providers to optimally develop and implement a formal system for identifying and developing successful new programs.

View full Leading by Gut or Data: The Data-Driven State of Higher Education Decision Making paper here.

Danielle Caldwell

Danielle Caldwell is the Content Marketing Manager at Helix Education. Prior to her work with Helix, Danielle served as a full-time faculty member with Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication program in Salt Lake City. Danielle brings nearly a decade of experience in research, communication, and higher education, and she currently still teaches graduate courses in organizational communication and research methods as an adjunct professor at Westminster College.