Published on 2015/02/24
The EvoLLLution | Launching a Leading Edge Certificate Program: A Market-Driven Approach
Non-credit programs help institutions quickly respond to rapidly changing market demand, but it’s important to develop these programs through an organized and thoughtful approach.

This time of year in Washington DC brings not just chilly temperatures but also a market full of professionals (our potential students!) ready to focus on themselves and advance professionally. For new product planning on the staff side, this is our prime time! About seven months from now the Fall 2015 semester will begin. New certificate programs that will launch in the fall should actually be released now for ideal marketing and promotion to deploy high enrollments. But how does an institution determine which program to launch?

Achieving strategic plans of increased revenue and broadening academic reach are the goal, but the pathway to get there in non-credit education has not always been clear. At Georgetown University’s Center for Continuing and Professional Education—the non-credit arm of the School of Continuing Studies—we’ve implemented a market-driven approach to launch the leading edge certificate. My colleague, Kyle Burns, and I presented this model at both the UPCEA Annual Conference in May 2014 and the UPCEA Mid Atlantic Regional Conference in October 2014, in response to growing interest from UPCEA members in non-credit program development.

For many institutions—Georgetown included, until a few years ago—when it came to the semester schedule, departments would release the course catalogue with hundreds of courses across a spectrum of topics from business, marketing and Microsoft Office training to foreign languages and the infamous underwater basket weaving. But when the start dates approach, courses across the board were cancelled due to low enrollment.

We decided that model was a lot of work; to get a course all ready when it held very little reward with such a high cancellation percentage was taxing our time and resources. This approach also wasn’t meeting the ever-changing needs of our community. After all, every time a federal administration changes agency initiatives, marketplace demands begin to look different. So instead of throwing courses against a wall to see what stuck, we have implemented a market-driven approach to launching new certificate programs. In fact, it’s a pretty simple cycle if you break it down to four key areas. Before sharing the four stages that have worked well, it’s important to remember that this model is cyclical—it’s always moving and it’s possible that you may enter at any stage. We also know, sometimes (with the best of intentions), we are informed by our leaders what programs we will be launching, regardless of our what our model tells us. And those can turn out to be the most innovative, unique and award-winning programs!

Ultimately, being flexible, agile and ready to embrace change enables a department to launch successful new programs.

Stage 1: Market-Driven Analysis

Of all the stages of new program development, market driven analysis is the most time-consuming but also the most critical.

If there is no market for the program about to launch, enrollments will be low and the program will not be sustained. In the market analysis, before launching a new program, leaders need to take a look at the marketplace. This is hard if you are launching online programs—you must first determine how you define “the market.” Is it based in certain geographic areas? Professional levels on the learning continuum? Subject area?

Quantitative data should be collected to determine labor market data and Google search results. This can be done with software to examine job postings and skills required, US Bureau of Labor and Statistics data by geographic area, and analyze Google analytics.

This research skill set is one every team may not have, thus illuminating the importance of collaboration with marketing analysts. Qualitative data can be collected and analyzed as well. Interviews, focus groups, evaluations and surveys with staff, faculty, students and industry employers share insights on what prospective students are looking for.

Stage 2: Building Partnerships

The beauty of partnership—and possibly one of its most challenging aspects—is making sure both parties benefit. The academy is not always known for seamless collaboration among departments, but strong institutional partners in building new programs is quintessential to success. We’ve found great success in partnering across campus, whether with the Medical Center or the School of Foreign Service, in mutually beneficial partnerships. The academic departments and faculty have the industry and educational knowledge, but within our school, we have the infrastructure and know-how to launch a new program quickly, market it, and ultimately to create a professional program with takeaway skills. These partnerships may best work with a revenue-share financial model that is on a sliding scale depending on the number of enrolled students.

External partnerships can also support new program launch. Industry professional associations have access to subject matter experts and memberships that could serve as faculty or potential students. Just marketing efforts are a true example of how both an association, such as the Project Management Institute or the American Marketing Association, and a certificate program can both benefit from a partnership. This type of partnership can lead to higher enrollments in programs and increased memberships at the associations.

Stage 3: Program Alignment

A high-level overview of all offerings (credit and non-credit) will determine whether new programs align with current offerings. Avoiding overlaps and building on existing strengths will increase both the depth and breadth of possibilities.

Program alignment can also help with strengthening enrollments through cross-listing courses and sharing resources including materials, faculty and industry connections.

Stage 4: Program Review

New program development is never really over in a changing marketplace, especially one like DC. Performing consistent course, faculty, and program evaluations are critical as is determining the drivers of change. Non-credit education has the opportunity to be agile, fast and timely, as economic, government, and societal changes occur and constant evaluation of a portfolio of programs must be done in order to meet the needs of the market place.

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