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Diversification or Specialization? The Key to Growing Graduate Programming

Diversification or Specialization? The Key to Growing Graduate Programming
Institutions that can afford to diversify, and who do so with their mission close at hand, will be the most successful as the graduate education marketplace becomes more competitive.
A key evolutionary artifact in graduate education today is the fact that the baby boom generation is aging out of the educational system. Baby boomers fueled the growth of American higher education in the 1960s, first as they sought undergraduate degrees and then across the next four decades as they sought to complete that long-ago unfinished undergraduate program or secure a master’s degree for their next promotion. While there are echoes of this generation, spikes in the pipeline so to speak, the simple truth is that our population is plateauing. That’s a trend that will continue for some time to come, and it does not bode well for graduate education going forward.

It’s safe to assume that competition in graduate education will grow over the next few decades, which raises the question of strategy. Should our institution focus on a niche market, or should we follow the advice of their investment advisor and diversify, diversify, diversify?

There are some pretty good examples of institutions that have made specializing in a niche work pretty well. Grand Canyon University has done a commendable job of focusing on their heritage of serving a Christian student body, even through and beyond their transition from not-for-profit to for-profit. And the American Military University was purpose-built from the ground up to serve the military, and theirs is a tremendous success story.

There are also plenty of examples of success with a more diversified strategy. The network of land-grant institutions comes to mind, as does the University of Phoenix. In addition, just look at the proliferation of specializations associated with the MBA degree in recent years, and the similar broadening of specialization opportunities in healthcare and other disciplines. Clearly, many institutions have found that offering lots of options to a diverse student body works just fine.

The common thread that runs through all of these success stories, regardless of strategy, is that the institutions are staying true to their missions. The troubled waters are found when an institution ventures away from its mission. Just ask the folks in Illinois who thought they’d get into online education a while back.

Does that mean Good Ol’ State U shouldn’t move into online education? Of course not. The research indicates that online students tend to attend local schools, and any institution’s current students and alumni need access to the programs of that esteemed institution. But let’s keep an eye on Arizona State University, which decided to extend their online presence to a national level. The odds are against them, but they’re doing a great job so far. Also keep Southern New Hampshire University in mind; another example of an institution that decided to explore a different niche. They have assembled a remarkable team to address that challenge, but it will be an uphill climb all the way. I’m pulling for them, but I worry that other institutions with fewer resources will decide they, too, can venture out into unknown territory, and there are alligators out there just waiting for some of them if they do. The best advice, then, is for institutions to stay true to their mission, seeking to best understand and serve the niche or niches that have gotten them to where they are today. As competition increases, there will be calls to branch out, and the institutions that are able to do so while remaining true to their mission will, in all likelihood, have the best chance for success.

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