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Three Questions to Ask Before Jumping Into a New Market

Three Questions to Ask Before Jumping Into a New Market
Before entering a new marketplace, higher education administrators must understand the lay of the land and whether they have a competitive edge in the space.
Today, universities and professional education providers are faced with an explosion of change. Vast arrays of educational opportunities are offered online and, as a result, there is increased competition for students. In keeping up with these changes, there is urgency to identify new markets and offer new programs.

Programs typically grow out of a school or provider’s mission and/or a clearly identified need. Unfortunately, many of those programs are not grounded in actual market-based need. Although it’s difficult to gather market information for every program, there are a few basic questions to ask (and resources available) that can help provide general guidance.

1. Does This Program or Course Meet a Market Demand or Need?

One indication of market demand is enrollment trending, or the growth of programs in a particular area. In 2000, there were 102 institutions listed in the IPEDS Data Center (from the National Center for Education Statistics) providing master’s-level training in manufacturing or industrial engineering. In 2012, there were 106 listed. Comparing those numbers does not reveal growth, and new programs in this area would need to be highly specialized to be of value.

According to a recent article, a popular growth area is the MBA, which in 2012 accounted for 25.4 percent of all master’s degrees. Even with its popularity, the same article questions the degree’s value:

“The huge price tag and abundant supply of recent business graduates have recently led pundits and experts to question whether the degree is really worth it. Some have argued that for aspiring entrepreneurs — who are really seeking real-world experience and a valuable professional network — the answer is no.”[1]

In contrast to traditional master’s degrees, the more unusual or unique a program is, the harder it is to find market data to support the need for extra training or education. One solution is a labor market review. Using Bureau of Labor Statistics data is extremely helpful in identifying if a particular sector is growing. Labor market reviews may also support the identified need for additional training in a particular field, but keep in mind that more information might be necessary to definitively make the case for a new program.

Environmental scans, where articles are collected from news websites and other sources, are useful for indicating demand for a certain skill. It’s also possible to access reports generated from online job postings. There are resources that aggregate this data and allow searches based on very specific skill sets over time.

Finally, with any unique program, qualitative research is a critical step in establishing market need. Interviews with subject matter experts, employers and potential students about training needs in a particular field, as well as specific courses or programs, will further help to prove the case for need and interest.

2. Do You Have a Way to Reach this Market?

If a course or program is designed with current students in mind, then it’s easier to reach them via email and other commonly-used marketing tactics. If a new area is being considered, focus then shifts to getting the program off the ground. Reaching new, potential students becomes more important — and more expensive.

For example, purchasing targeted lists of emergency medical technicians — or any professional group — for research/marketing can be costly. Forming alliances with associations, employers or other groups can be cost effective and helpful when developing programs and focusing marketing efforts. This is especially the case for programs that aren’t locally based and are in need of students at a national level.   Increasingly, posting to groups on Facebook and LinkedIn can help get reactions to potential programs.

A corollary to this is understanding the market. This is where traditional customer market research comes into play. In addition to assessing training needs, testing perceptions of the home organization and learning where and how to communicate with potential students can round out the picture.

Also, what other messages are potential students paying attention to? Research into competitive programs gives an idea of what’s being offered in the market and what messages other organizations are using. It’s best to develop a message differentiating your potential course or program from others in the market.

3. Do You Have the Right Content and Delivery Format?

Finally, does the program have the right content, and is it delivered in the appropriate format? Regarding content, Georgia Tech Professional Education’s research with potential employers on the new Georgia Tech online Master of Science in computer science degree (the first master’s degree in a massive open online format) revealed the importance employers place on practical experience or evidence that students have completed an IT-related project. This is also echoed in the magazine article referenced earlier:

“For example, Cliff Oxford, MBA, a former IT manager at UPS, has written that business today moves too fast, and entrepreneurs simply can’t afford to spend time in the classroom: ‘Go only if you find a program that offers real-world experience, working alongside someone who is building a business,’ he writes. ‘Otherwise, while I wouldn’t say the current traditional MBA is useless, it is pretty much like having athletes studying game film but never practicing on the field.'”[2]

Our research also revealed that current and potential professional master’s degree students prefer a blended format, where most of the training is online, with periodic face-to-face, on-campus meetings for additional sessions or presentations. For other types of training, the format preferences could be different.

Actual course design can impact program success as well. Instructional designers at Georgia Tech Professional Education say interactivity is key to engaging students online. Our designers include faculty members in course design to ensure focus on audience needs for the best possible outcomes. Their goal is to make content relevant and riveting, and this is the best possible marketing tool for us.

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[1] Laura Montini, “MBAs on the Rise (Whether You Like It or Not,” Inc Magazine, May 21, 2014. Accessed at

[2] Ibid

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