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Market Research That Enhances the Value Proposition

Writing this month in The Washington Post, Sweet Briar College President Phillip Stone shared how his almost-shuttered institution dealt with extraordinary circumstances, believing it carries a vital lesson for other small colleges: “Adapting is crucial to thriving in a higher education marketplace dominated by a single question: What will tuition money buy?”

Indeed, price-sensitive prospective students and their families are actively engaged in assessing the worth of a college’s value proposition as they determine their ability and/or willingness to pay. And the three main factors they examine in order to calculate value—the quality of the educational experience, the cost to attend, and the resulting outcomes—must be scrutinized just as thoroughly by the college as it is by the consumers in the marketplace.

At private colleges and universities, the decision of what price to charge is almost always data-based (i.e., informed by rigorous research and modeling). But while the consumer is at the center of pricing research, when it comes to determining the quality of the educational experience and its resulting outcomes, data collection has typically been done in service of the accreditation process. As a result, consumers are still left with questions that college administrators need to be prepared to answer.

Innovation in measuring the merits of educational offerings appears to be on its way with the commencement of the U.S. Department of Education’s pilot program allowing federal student aid to flow to unaccredited providers. A key aspect of the experiment, which links accredited colleges with outside providers, is that each partnership will be monitored by a third-party “quality assurance entity” charged with making sure the curriculum is being delivered as promised.

Innovation is called for in measuring the outcomes of particular aspects of a college education, as well. Brandon Busteed, executive director for education and workforce development at Gallup, advocates for the addition of behavioral economic measures to judge the learning growth and development of students and the career and life outcomes of alumni. He sees a coming data revolution in the measurement of things like student or graduate well-being, hope for the future, and engagement.

With consumers more actively evaluating the value proposition of individual higher education institutions, colleges likewise need to be more active in conducting institutional research that allows them to make data-driven decisions about their quality, cost, and outcomes.


Sweet Briar College Adjusts

The president of Sweet Briar College shares marketplace lessons that can benefit other small colleges. (The Washington Post)

New Quality Assurance Entities 

The Education Department is experimenting with who is allowed to monitor the quality of academic programs. (The Chronicle)

The Real Data Revolution

Behavioral economic measures will usher in a new era of tracking higher ed outcomes. (Brandon Busteed, Trusteeship Magazine)


Lawlor Recommends

As we have noted on multiple occasions during the course of this past year, these are interesting times for the higher education marketplace. Charles Dickens might be inspired today to write about “A Tale of Student Recruitment” and even reuse some of his previous verbiage: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …

Today’s student recruitment, enrollment management, and fiscal challenges require an Olympian effort from senior leaders at colleges and universities, who are peppered with an unhelpful barrage of sensationalist click-bait news coverage, sound-bite generalizations, and cookie-cutter analyses of the marketplace. What has become readily apparent from our conversations with college and university senior leadership is that there is a genuine need and desire to have a shared understanding about the real marketing challenges facing private higher education, as well as a more informed perspective about how best to address them and create marketing opportunities that advance their institutions in today’s dynamic and evolving marketplace.

In response to this market situation, we are collaborating with another higher education marketing consultancy, RHB, on our 2016 Survey of Independent College Presidents to ascertain what presidents genuinely believe are the real marketing challenges, needs, and possible solutions for responding to the shifting climate of American higher education. The data results and analysis will be presented and shared at selected national conferences and gatherings in 2017. The initial response rate to our survey of presidents is very good, and we are excited that the market intelligence we gather from this research initiative, combined with the breadth and depth of our other extensive research assignments, will help all of us enhance the value proposition of investing in higher education.

Whether it’s data about quality, cost, or outcomes, the key is to gather informed insights that provide authentic market intelligence. Too many institutions gather data but are remiss in analyzing it and then acting upon the findings to make logical reforms in response to today’s dynamic market conditions. It’s time to step up with robust institutional-level market research that can enhance the college’s value proposition.