Drawing on Eduventures’ 20-plus years of experience helping universities develop, launch, and assess academic programs, the Program Spotlight Series of Wake-Up Calls calls attention to best practices in program development.
In today’s market, when many schools are struggling to grow enrollment, the search for new academic programs is highly competitive. Your institution may have identified some great new program opportunities through robust market research and thorough discussions about institutional priorities. Yet it is almost certain your competitors are coming to similar conclusions about where the best opportunities lie.
The chart below uses three specialized master’s programs—Homeland Security, Logistics and Supply Chain Management, and Occupational Therapy—to illustrate the problem. Between 2010 and 2016, at least twenty additional institutions awarded master’s degrees in Homeland Security. The number of providers quintupled, but average conferrals halved. What looked like a decent opportunity a few years ago seems less attractive today.
By contrast, master’s providers in Logistics and Supply Chain Management doubled over the same period, but degrees per provider were flat. Those entering the Occupational Therapy market have fared better: a small increase in providers coincided with a one-third increase in average degree completions.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics.
Ultimately, a tight market means that many schools will get to the same green light for program launch. The market might be there, but who will gain the most market share once they get off the line? Of course, in any market, some schools are doing better than others, highlighting the importance of program differentiation and promotion.
It’s a race, to be sure, but one that should have the speed and strategy of a 5K as opposed to the blistering pace of a hundred meters or the endurance of a marathon. The difference between capturing sufficient market share to make your program successful and missing the opportunity has a lot to do with how intelligently you navigate your program launch. Move too quickly at the start, and you won’t truly be prepared for success. Linger too long, and your competitors will get there first.
Due Diligence Done Well
So you think you’ve found your market opportunity. You can never be one hundred percent confident, but you make sure your due diligence has ticked all of these boxes:
- There is evidence of student and employer demand.
- You understand the contours of a curriculum that will fulfill student and employer needs.
- You have concrete examples of how you can compete in the market.
- Your institution has the capacity to deliver the program (e.g., faculty in place, technology, practicum placements).
- The program is mission and brand aligned.
- Faculty and administration are in agreement about the program opportunity.
Managing a Successful Program Launch
Eduventures believes that the most critical piece of a successful program launch, beyond the product itself, is engagement of the right people in the right processes. We recommend following these five tenets of successful program launch.
Bring Together the Right Launch Team
In general, three types of people must come together to successfully launch a program:
- Deans, program directors, and key faculty must develop a deep understanding of the curriculum and purpose of the program.
- Enrollment, admissions, and recruitment professionals must know how to create the right kind of outreach.
- Communications and marketing professionals must translate academic understanding of the program to market-meaningful messages, using the right communications channels.
Each institution will have to decide exactly who should be involved in a program launch. This group should establish timelines, activities, goals, and accountability measures that will get to a successful program launch.
Give Yourself Enough Time, But Not Too Much
We’ve seen institutions take as little as a few months, and as long as two years, to launch a successful program. Timing is important. You may have to take into consideration factors like state approval and accreditation, hiring of faculty, technology adoption, forging industry partnerships, and marketing and communications capacity. The appropriate timeline must be negotiated by the program launch team on a case-by-case basis.
Develop Realistic Enrollment Goals
It is the rare program that accelerates to full enrollment in its first few years of existence. Your new program should reach its cruising speed in approximately 3-5 years. Enrollment plans should develop realistic funnel goals for inquiries, applications, admissions, and enrollments in each semester or year of the program. The performance of other programs you have launched, as well as the average increase in completion rates among competitors, must be taken seriously.
These goals, especially the inquiry goals, should drive marketing and communication tactics at the top of the funnel. Assessing actual funnel performance alongside your goals will refine recruiting along the way.
Translate Your Program Proposal into a Program Recruiting, Marketing and Communications Brief
Marketing and communications specialists have the task of taking a rich academic proposal and making it meaningful to the market. Developing a program brief can help ensure recruiters, communicators, and faculty are on the same page. A program brief typically includes: a short positioning statement that outlines the value the program for the target market, messages that differentiate the program from its competitors, a detailed description of the target market, and any other special features. The brief helps crystallize your recruitment and communications plan.
Get Specific with Marketing and Communications Tactics
The program brief is a strategic document, and a prompt to think about the nuts and bolts of recruitment. However, marketing for a new program can be costly. When it is time to get tactical, don’t assume that marketing and communications efforts that have worked for other programs are ideal for your new program. Based on the identified target market and enrollment goals, your marketing and communication team can identify the tactics that are a best fit, such as digital campaigns that geo-fence highly targeted areas, or advertisements that reach the right mid-career professionals.
Of course, there are many more details that must be ironed out along the way, but adherence to these five tenets will help create a strategic and tactical focus to beat the competition.
If you want to learn more about identifying and launching new programs, reach out to your Eduventures Client Research Analyst, read about our work on program innovation, or review posts about healthcare, nursing, or social justice in this Program Spotlight series.