Limiting the Risks of Launching New Academic Programs

If, like me, you’ve launched new programs from the C-suite, you’ll know that the path to success is extremely challenging. Navigating the potential risks requires careful planning and consideration in a market where data sources are limited and frequently out of date. 

It’s a high stakes environment where the pressure to identify opportunities for student growth is heaped upon marketing and admissions leaders to meet annual enrollment projections and that elusive market niche that’s yet to be unlocked. Balancing that pressure with social listening insights from conversations, opinions, and sentiments among potential students is essential if institutions intend to stay aligned with shifting demands and preferences. 

To limit the risks that determine whether or not a program is viable in the short and long-term, it’s critical to overcome four market demand challenges.

Higher education's data-lag issue

Institutions face the challenge of working with data that’s often years out of date or simply not relevant to a specific program launch. Institutional data is categorized and reported inconsistently and with varying degrees of transparency, making it difficult to identify programs that are performing well in current market conditions. 

Traditional methods like surveys or focus groups have limitations in capturing real-time sentiments and nuances. To limit the risk of launching new programs, capture relevant real-time insights ahead of new program development so that it shapes early thinking in the C-suite and combats anecdotal evidence.

Frustratingly secretive data

Institutions are inherently secretive about their enrollment data, student retention, and market performance. Predicting how a new program will perform against the competition is critical, yet immensely challenging. Current market demand data is notoriously hard to find. Program specific data simply isn’t available publicly, and with so many nuanced permutations possible, rooting market evidence requires another layer of expertise and experience.

Your target audience is out there, talking about you, your competitors, and your next new program. Listening to the voices of your target audience provides context to your labor force data, crucial for executive decision making and execution. Look back on conversation topics and historical trends for lessons and insights you can use moving forward to more accurately understand an incoming class. 

Biased market research conducted at the wrong time

Market evidence is a necessity when launching a new program—there’s no sign-off without it. Yet it’s so often triggered post-decision, after leadership hunches and anecdotal evidence cedes overblown expectations and warped reality.

Sadly, I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about. 

To avoid bias and budget drain, retain a consistent vision of the market throughout the year, anticipate the need to change earlier, and recognize and report on social listening trends that could lead to future program opportunities before they surface in the C-suite.

Program cannibalization

Intimately understanding an institution’s total program offerings is essential. What are the gaps in your program cohorts? Clarifying whether a new innovative program will cannibalize legacy programs might be one of the most overlooked aspects of a launch.

I’ve seen it play out. Marketing stretches resources to reach the new cohort and admissions prioritizes recruitment for the new program. It looks like growth on the balance sheet, but results remain flat. 

Avoiding this trap is vital to success. Listen to your intended audience, observe the gaps in your current cohort, the conversations within program areas, and their intentions to progress their careers beyond existing offerings.