The Path Towards Academic Program Profitability

Ten Ways to Know What Students Want 

We are pleased to welcome Gray Associates CEO and Founder, Robert Gray Atkins as our guest blogger this week.  To hear more of his insights about data-informed decision making, check out this week’s episode of the IngenioUs podcast here

Since the end of the Great Recession, higher education has been asked to focus on employer needs and skill requirements; this pressure is likely to increase in the wake of the pandemic and the unemployment it has caused.  But jobs don’t fill classes, students do–and they pay tuition, too.  To have financially healthy program portfolios, institutions need good data on student demand in the markets they serve.  

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Define your Market:  Where do your students come from?  That’s the market you serve.  Load student addresses into mapping software to identify the counties they come from.  Most student data can be pulled by county, so once you know the counties you can get the data you need out of the sources described below.
  2. Get IPEDS Completions:  The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is a comprehensive database of all the institutions offering a given program.  Find the ones in your market and download their completions by program.  This will give you a reasonable estimate of the historical size and growth of every program offered.  But, the data is from 2018–and students chose their programs long before that.
  3. Get Google Search Volume by Program:  Using Google ad words, you can manually pull the number of searches in your counties for keywords associated with your programs.  This will take a while.  If you try to automate the process, Google will temporarily turn off your access.  But the data is great and up to date.
  4. Find a Source of Inquiry Volumes.  Aggregators and ad agencies advertise and collect inquiries on the internet, which they sell to colleges.  If your school works with one they may share data on the inquiry volumes they receive.  Inquiries are up to date and can be broken down by program, location, degree level and preferred modality (online or on-campus).  But, they tend to skew towards online and vocational programs. 
  5. Check the Testing Services:  Some testing services (e.g., ETS) survey students on their intended college major.  Buy a copy of the survey and see what students say they are interested in.  Be forewarned:  what students say may not be what they do.
  6. Get International Data:  International students make up about 5% of U.S. college students and over 60% of students in some programs (e.g., Masters in Computer Science).  You can get Google data by country (except for China) and program or find an international aggregator to buy it from.
  7. Create a Benchmark Program:  All this data is very hard to interpret if you don’t have anything to compare it with.  Be sure to collect data on a program you know well, so you can see if other programs are better or worse than your benchmark.
  8. Use Several Sources:  As you noticed, each of the sources of information has its flaws.  IPEDS is old, inquiries and Google searches skew towards online and vocational programs.  Try to get two or three sources, so you have a balanced view of student demand.
  9. Build a Ranking System:  Most institutions offer 80 or more programs.  You will need to build a fairly sophisticated system to house all of your data, compare one program to another, and create a scoring system to help you sort through them.
  10. Integrate Your Data:  While student demand is important, you will also need data on employment and competition.  But, that is a blog for another day.

About the author:  Bob Atkins led Gray’s entry into the education industry and the development of Gray’s proprietary industry databases and service offerings.  He has worked with most of Gray’s education clients, consulting with CEOs and CMOs on business strategy, pricing, location selection, and program strategy.  He is an expert in business strategy, marketing, sales and high-tech distribution channels.

Bob has helped AT&T, American Express, HP, IBM, and a number of higher education clients to develop growth strategies, enter new markets, and build their sales and channel organizations.  He has also led efforts that have eliminated tens of millions of dollars in cost, particularly in sales and channel management.  He is a published author, whose articles have appeared in The Wall Street JournalSales and Marketing Management, and other publications around the world.  He received an MBA, with honors, from Harvard Business School and a BA, magna cum laude, from Harvard College.

If you would like to learn more about Gray Associates services including student demand data analysis system, see here.

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