Published on 2014/07/14
AUDIO | Adapting to the Highly Competitive Postsecondary Marketplace
The Internet has created a number of opportunities for institutions to serve new students, but it has also made the marketplace significantly more competitive.
The following interview is with Wayne Parkins, a graduate education consultant and former executive director of new business development in global business education with Pearson Learning Solutions. In a recent Q&A with The EvoLLLution, Parkins shared his thoughts on the capacity for service providers to help smaller institutions gain a competitive edge in the graduate education marketplace. In this interview, he expands on that topic and discusses how robust enrollment and acquisition management can put schools ahead.

Click here to read key takeaways.

1. What are the biggest problems graduate schools currently face in terms of enrolling students?

There are several things that they face; the biggest is the pool of competitors. The Internet has leveled the playing field in a lot of segments and graduate education is a part of that same environment that’s become flat.

There are four core areas that create challenges. The biggest is [that] a school has to determine who their audience really is, who their student population is that they’re drawing from, who their potential customers [are].

The second one is program relevance. Are the programs we have in place relevant to who our potential students actually are? Are the programs going to help them reach their professional goals? Building on that, are these programs going to allow them to either progress in their current career and profession or are they going to be able to move into a job or career that’s specific to that program itself? Sometimes the elephant in the room can be theory versus practice. Is the program blending the appropriate academic theory with the practical application necessary to achieve that education [to close the] employment gap?

2. Are there any issues when it comes to making sure everything an institution does is geared toward getting students to move from a ‘first look’ at the website to enrollment?

Schools of all shapes and sizes should be thinking about readiness studies and finding objective third-party consulting services to make sure their programs map toward what the potential enrollees want and need. By doing that, you’ve ensured that as you attract students and begin to enroll, you’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure you’re on the right track and that a student that enrolls in your program is going to be engaged and excited to the point that they want to complete. At the end of the day, these schools are only going to be able to enhance their brand, not by the number of students they enroll, but by the number of students they … have successfully complete.

3. Building on that, what are a few of the most significant challenges graduate schools face when it comes to retention?

One of the big things schools have to ask themselves is, “How are the learning objectives and outcomes for each course achieved?”

What are we doing to engage these students we’re teaching, and are we able to bring [the theory] to life in a way that enhances the actual brand of that student? Students have a brand just like the institutions do. They’re looking for ways to differentiate and exploit that just like an institution does to attract students.

In terms of the retention, it’s necessary to point out the student life cycle — the five E’s (engage, enroll, educate, evaluate and employ). The lifecycle is connected, and while they’re different buckets of the lifecycle, they’re extremely intertwined.

4. Given the declining resources available to higher education administrators, what can graduate schools do to overcome these obstacles and improve their student lifecycle management?

The first thing they have to do is display a willingness to take all preconceived thoughts of what they should be doing off the table. While budgets are decreasing, the best money these institutions can spend is around some of the consulting services to determine their level of readiness and who they are in the marketplace.

Integrated marketing [also comes into play.] All of these schools are spending money in some capacity to attract students. Integrated marketing strategies can really help them reach that student they’ve identified as their potential enrollment. There’s a lot of ways to provide really well-qualified leads to these schools so they’re not spending valuable capital on students who stumble onto your program out of state.

The final component is what’s becoming known as inquiry management. It becomes a distasteful phrase for a lot of schools when you talk about lead conversion, but the reality is if you’re not professionally and fully handling the branded integration leads provided, you’re missing out because there are definitively defined metrics in place that can help students reach schools they want to approach.

5. What are some of the pre-conceived notions you’ve come up against when institutions are considering growing, and how do administrators actually overcome these obstacles?

You would be surprised by how many people still feel the Internet provides a blue ocean of opportunity. The reality is the Internet has made the world flat and yet has created a more competitive environment than ever. The whole notion of ‘if we go online, we’re going to reap a huge reward’ is one of the biggest myths out there.

The other one is: why would we want to think about an integrated marketing strategy and an online brand? We know who we are and we’ve been spending money on print, radio, TV and billboards for quite a long while and it’s done us well up till this point. The fact of the matter is the way students are finding online programs now has changed dramatically. While a billboard may remind somebody about a school that’s in their local region, it may not take them down that path of actually becoming a true lead for enrollment.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about robust enrollment and acquisition management strategies, and what institutions can do to not only bring more students in the door but also ensure they stay through to degree completion?

Whether it be through a readiness study or a realistic check on how many students they can actually handle for a program in terms of their growth goals, there are a variety of third parties now that can help [institutions] with specific areas in that online program management area. Really think about what you do well and think about where the opportunities lie. Be open to pursuing partnerships to help them reach the core number of students they’d like to grow to. There are ways to get there now with unique and interesting partnerships that are beneficial for everybody.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • The Internet has made competition in the graduate education marketplace fierce, as students are no longer restricted to institutions in their local area.

  • Without having a clear strategy to compete in the new graduate education marketplace, institutions will get run over.

  • The first step to achieving growth goals is for an institution to identify its key differentiators and figure out how to best communicate those unique aspects.
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Readers Comments

Jennifer Long 2014/07/14 at 2:16 pm

I remember the days when “theory versus practice” was a legitimate conversation in higher ed, and forward-looking institutions differentiated themselves simply on the basis that they offered a blend of the two. I’m happy to note we’ve since moved beyond those days, and institutions now have to demonstrate both their utilitarian and intangible value as well as offer a clear “value added” proposition to differentiate themselves.

Dwayne P. 2014/07/14 at 4:06 pm

I don’t see the internet as having much of an impact on competition at the end of the day. Sure, it opens institutions up to a greater pool of prospective students, but for the most part, the factors people consider before making a decision don’t change because they suddenly have more options. As Parkins says, what will speak the loudest about an institution is its completion rates, not fancy marketing or high enrollment. Institutions that are already good at this will continue to have a strong differentiator.

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