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If You Build It, What Will Happen? The Importance of Market Research

If You Build It, What Will Happen? The Importance of Market Research
Continuing education units should engage in market research before developing a program to ensure it will respond to industry needs and attract enrollment.

Higher education institutions and administrators are facing mounting pressure to develop and deliver innovative online programs, but there is little knowledge of whether these programs will actually be worth the investment.

Will an online course in Swahili draw enough learners to offer this course annually? Will busy working professionals, such as engineers, enroll and succeed in online graduate programs? What unique online programs will be successful in serving employers and higher education learners’ niche areas of interest?

Questions such as these are creating new challenges for the academy, and many are turning to market research to inform their decision making.

Sharing the Risk via Collaboration

Let’s take the case of offering an online Swahili course, one of the many less commonly taught languages offered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We’ve had a steady handful of students enroll in different levels of Swahili language courses. A languages faculty member created online lessons for a Swahili course using a modest academic technology grant and continued developing lessons to create an entire online Swahili course. This online offering served a small number of additional learners until our director of academic technology brought a suggestion to the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) to offer the online course more broadly through a collaborative agreement. The idea was piloted to assess its potential in terms of course enrollments and learner success.

The proven success of this single online course has grown into the CIC CourseShare program, currently offering 25 online language courses for 14 member institutions, with 202 additional language courses in varying stages of collaborative development and enrollment. In this case, collaboration allowed these institutions to reduce risk by combining student enrollments and to more efficiently offer less commonly taught languages to learners.

Partnering with Employers

Let’s move on to the case of graduate programs for mid-career engineers. In this case, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Engineering started with extensive surveys of mid-career engineers and their employers to determine what these engineers needed in order to become more effective project leaders. From these studies, the online Master of Engineering in Professional Practice (MEPP) curriculum was carefully crafted to meet identified needs. Was the pre-development market research worthwhile?  In the 14 years this program has been offered, 94 percent of the more than 250 learners have completed their graduate program within two years, and 95 percent of graduates say the MEPP program has had an extensive and positive impact on their professional development and career.

Building on the success of the MEPP program, the College of Engineering has continued to partner with the engineering industry to conduct pre-development market research. This research has guided decisions and curricula for four additional online Master of Engineering programs (Engine Systems, Sustainable Systems Engineering, Polymer Engineering and Science and Technical Japanese) and two online Master of Science programs (Electrical and Computer Engineering and Mechanical Engineering).  These programs have also met with success. In fact, in 2012 and 2013, the college has been ranked in the top-10 list of schools offering high-quality, online graduate engineering programs by U.S. News & World Report.

Engaging Professional Market Researchers

There are many market research agencies and consulting firms available to conduct studies to identify the educational needs of potential employers and learners. In the case of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Educational Innovation (EI) projects, the services of professional market researchers have been employed to determine the pre-development feasibility of online courses and programs. Some of this research has been conducted through membership in a national higher education market research agency, Eduventures, Inc.  Other market research projects have been completed by consulting firms such as Hezel Associates, LLC. Carefully crafted studies can yield valuable data and advice regarding the viability and sustainability of potential online programs.

Adding Internal Market Research Staff

Today’s colleges and universities may reach a tipping point at which more simultaneous studies are needed than are economically feasible using market research agencies or consulting firms. At this point, internal market research staff members may be added. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Engineering now employs a market researcher to support its ongoing success in offering online graduate degree programs, and administrators leading the EI effort are in the process of hiring a market researcher to support campus efforts to effectively expand online and partially-online postsecondary programs.


As higher education administrators seek pre-development guidance on new programs, market research becomes critical to the decision-making process. Many institutions, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have successfully relied on peer collaborations, employer partnerships, market research agencies, consulting firms and internal market research staffing to predict, pilot and prove the success of new online and partially-online courses and programs. As institutions face more competition for online learners in the future, market research will continue to be necessary to answer the question, “If you build it, what will happen?”