Planning Online Programs: Making Sure There’s
a Market

As they look to improve student access and increase degree completion rates, more institutions are considering launching or scaling up existing online initiatives. At Academic Impressions, we're responding to the trend with a series of articles interviewing leading experts on planning online programs, and by offering an upcoming conference that leverages collaborative information sharing and case studies to guide institutions in developing a working plan.

It's becoming more widely recognized that online programming entails far more than just providing electronic correspondence courses; with the new mode of course delivery come new demands on instructional design, technological infrastructure and student support services, staff and faculty training, and new challenges for your marketing and recruiting efforts. The investment required demands that institutions adopt a deliberate approach to developing online programs. The potential for increased tuition revenue and increased access to higher education is significant -- but to see success, you have to look before you leap.

Joel Hartman, vice provost for information technologies and resources and chief information officer at the University of Central Florida, suggests that those initiatives that have failed in the past share some or all of these characteristics:

  • "Conceptualized by administrators who made the assumption that there was a market for their proposed online programs, only to discover that market was not as large in reality"
  • "Assumed a lower cost of producing and a higher rate of return than turned out to be the case"
  • "Did not prepare, inform, or gather support of faculty"

We ran an article last week on involving faculty during the planning process. This week, we turned to two the leading experts in online education to learn more about how institutions need to approach assessing the market for potential online programs

Internal Review: Start with Your Strengths, Not From Scratch

First, Barbara Macaulay, associate provost of online education at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, offers this cautionary note:

What seems to have happened in the worst-case scenarios -- Illinois' Global Campus being the recent example -- is that people forget why their universities and colleges have the reputations they have; you want to connect the online endeavor to your current strengths and your current brand.

Barbara Macaulay, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences

Even if your institution is a very small college with a brand that is recognized only locally, Macaulay advises against building outside of the brand you've established. Those programs that have seen the most success over the past decade have been those that represented evolutionary rather than revolutionary change for the institution.

"You're known for the excellent programs you deliver, taught by excellent faculty," Macaulay advises. "You want to bring those faculty into the planning process early and seek their input in building on the academic strengths and reputation you have. This will help to ensure the quality of the education you offer online, as well as your ability to market and promote it -- you're working with something that's proven."

Early, External Market Research

As you do internal research to identify those programs with the strongest record, the highest demand, and the strongest core of faculty who could support an online expansion of your offerings, you need to also test the external market. John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, advises conducting your external market research as early as possible, before designing your online curriculum.

Even when building on your strengths, launching a new online program entails both significant opportunity and significant risk.

"To realize the full potential of online learning, we need to invest in really solid instructional design -- this enhances the learning experience but also drives up the cost of online courses. When I was at Boston University, it was not unrealistic to predict that we would spend $50,000 on developing an online course. If you assume a set of 10 to 12 courses needed to warrant a master's degree, that translates to $500,000 to $600,000 in development costs -- just course development. That doesn't include the cost of enrollment management or student recruitment. When we're investing half a million dollars in the launch of a new, sophisticated online degree program, we want to have some assurance beyond just someone's hunch that we'll see high demand."
John Ebersole, Excelsior College

Ebersole stresses that academic leaders need to conduct the necessary market research early enough to inform decisions in three areas, each of which offers you opportunities for differentiating your programs from your competitors:

  • Curriculum design: What segment of the market should we target? What gap could we address?
  • Instructional design: What types of learning experiences would this niche market value? Can this group of students support the cost of a residency requirement? Are social-media tie-ins appropriate for this audience? ("What might help a 20-year-old MBA become more competitive," Ebersole cautions, "may not be as useful to a 40-year-old nursing student.")
  • Marketing: How price-sensitive is our target market? What channels will be most effective in telling that niche that our program exists?

Consider Leveraging a Third Party

In order to keep the analysis of research findings as objective as possible; Ebersole recommends turning to a third party. He cites one example in which there was strong internal support for an institution to offer a new graduate program online. In fact, when their external market research partner indicated that the marketplace would only demand five or six graduates of that program per year, the internal committee insisted that given all the undergraduate programs that could feed interested students into the proposed graduate program, the institution needed to pursue it.

In this case, the university contracted with a second market research firm -- which returned the same findings. "Had the university conducted the research using only internal staff and resources," Ebersole warns, "the peer pressure might have been such that the committee would have ignored critical indicators and pursued a program that would not have been financially viable."

You Need Actionable Research

"Be careful. There are firms who will profess to have expertise in market research, but who will essentially relay to you what the Department of Labor says on its website; they may conduct a Google search to see what competing institutions have similar offerings, and then report to you the features of those programs and how they are priced. That's not enough."
John Ebersole, Excelsior College

"With more and more institutions coming into the marketplace," Ebersole advises, "you need more sophisticated research than has been relied on in the past." This means moving beyond a macro-level market analysis to look at the minutiae that really matter: what segments of the market are under-served, what knowledge or skills are in demand in the industry, what communication channels does that market rely on, and what price is reasonable for the specific segment you intend to target?

Ebersole cites the example of an institution planning an athletics program aimed at staff in community and civic organizations that sponsor athletics programs for youth. The institution had defined its niche, and had defined what knowledge and skills that niche market needed. However, a thorough market analysis determined that, if the institution used its standard tuition, it would be the most expensive player in that market. "This was a fairly price-sensitive audience," Ebersole notes, "and the institution did not have the name recognition with them to warrant that price." Had the institution moved forward without re-assessing its pricing strategy, the project would have been unlikely to see success -- even with effective curricular design and stellar faculty.

Early and diligent market research can help safeguard you from costly mistakes and help you identify opportunities that might otherwise pass unnoticed.