by David Brodigan and George Dehne
What data should a college have to remain effective in a more competitive and difficult environment? What does a college need to know about itself and its market before it attempts strategic and marketing planning? These are the two questions we are most often asked by presidents, trustees, and admission professionals trying to plan for a difficult future.
Most colleges and universities collect pounds of data that show how their competition compares with their institution on such things as endowments, library holdings, faculty salaries, tuition, and so forth. While in most industries this kind of information can be helpful, competitor comparisons have become a fixation at many colleges. These institutions have gotten to the point where they will not make a strategic move without assuring themselves that their competition has already taken such a step. Yet in our view, any institution that simply wants to emulate its more selective competitors will always be second or worse. Institutions must get fresh data on their own situation, students, and position, and they must act upon what they learn.
Below we describe several categories of information that we believe colleges should have for effective marketing and planning. Obviously, the need for any one kind of information may be greater for one institution than for another, but the basics remain the same.
We find it strange how little most colleges know about the opinions, expectations, and satisfaction of current students. At the minimum, a study of current students allows an institution to:
A college can utilize one of the standardized current student surveys, or it can develop a custom-designed one. The commercially available questionnaires, such as those offered by ACT or Noel Levitz are essentially student satisfaction surveys, while the College Student Experiences Questionnaire, developed by Robert Pace and his graduate students at UCLA, produces indexes that reflect important dimensions of the educational process as well as overall satisfaction. Since the retirement of Robert Pace, the CSEQ project has been taken over by George Kuh, Professor of Higher Education at Indiana University.
These survey instruments have been administered numerous times over a period of several years so that validity and reliability estimates are readily available. Also provided, in most cases, are norms which meet the need for comparisons with appropriate classes of institutions. To gain the most from these surveys, institutions must conduct data analyses beyond those which come with the package.
Alternatively, custom-designed surveys allow a college to focus on issues of specific concern to the college, test scenarios, and gain a fuller picture of special student segments. We have found the custom-designed surveys more valuable when student recruitment is an issue. An institution should conduct a current student survey with all its students, including graduate and non-traditional students, at intervals of two or three years. Obtaining repeated measures on individuals is a way of assessing student progress than can be an important benefit to any college with a serious interest in measuring the success of its educational efforts.
Many institutions, especially private colleges have pursued either a peer-pricing strategy or an ambition-based strategy. Peer pricing means a college raises its tuition and fees to stay near, above, or below a set of competing institutions. An ambition-based strategy first determines the goals for the coming year, and then calculates how much of a tuition increase is needed to accomplish them. Few institutions have studied their pricing as it relates to the perception of quality. The leaders in pricing theory tell us that there are three forces that affect what a college can charge. These forces are the market (and your institution's position in it), the college's public image, and the total cost of the services the college wishes to provide.
Your assessment of these factors should include measures of institutional price and quality representing the perceptions of prospective students. The position of your institution on those perceptual dimensions should be compared with the positions of other institutions representative of your competition. That competition set should include public, private, regional, and national institutions. Is your institution perceived to be less expensive that other colleges that in fact do not cost as much as yours? In the minds of prospective students, is the perceived quality of your institution commensurate with the price they think you charge?
The college that is perceived to have relatively low price and comparatively high quality enjoys considerable market advantage, and under appropriate circumstances may be able to raise its fees relative to other institutions in its competition set. On the other hand, when perceived quality lags behind perceived price, raising annual tuition and fees too rapidly can have dire consequences. Perhaps the worst circumstance is to have low perceived quality and low perceived price when, in reality, actual price lies toward the high end of the price distribution. With that kind of distortion, the perceived value of the experience offered by that college will certainly diminish if students' perceptions of its price are corrected somehow. Pricing strategies can be applied confidently only when the perceptions of price and quality, held by prospective students, are understood fully.
Why do some students who are admitted to an institution choose to enroll while others do not? This is the question an admitted student survey attempts to answer. An admitted student survey allows a college to see how enrolling and non-enrolling students differ on issues ranging from prestige and price to financial aid and social life. If the sample is large enough, an institution can even look at why students chose a specific institution over another. Even when the sample is small, an institution can examine that question by institutional category (Carnegie Classification, U.S. News categories, etc.)
For several years, the College Board has offered a low-cost Admitted Student Questionnaire (ASQ) that is a satisfactory means of obtaining basic response frequencies and a fundamental analysis of the yield stage of the admission process. Unfortunately, the standard ASQ analysis does not provide information, for example, on whether women have a different impression of an institution than men, or whether the location is more of a deterrent to the enrollment because of distance from home, place within the state, or kind of neighborhood. The ASQ has greater value if the institution purchases the data and conducts further analysis on income and ability levels, geographic and gender differences, and so forth. This custom analysis greatly increases the value of the Admitted Applicant Survey by gaining a clearer picture of your institution's admitted students.
Some colleges, in an effort to gain greater insight into their admitted student populations, do custom-designed admitted student surveys. With a customized survey, a college can ask questions related to specific aspects of the college (perceived safety, specific facilities and so forth). It can also determine specific typologies of students within the applicant pool, in order to determine whether the college is losing students who otherwise would be served especially well by the college.
Students who inquire, but do not apply, are the key to increasing an institution's market share. Inquirers are students who were initially attracted to an institution, but then discarded it as an option. Knowing how they view the institution and what kinds of things might have converted them to applicants can provide volumes of information. It also can increase applications. Since most private colleges and universities convert from five to 11 percent of their many thousand inquiries into applicants, even a modest increase can have a major impact on the number of applications.
The importance of the alumni can not be over stated. Not only can alumni be a major source of revenue, in many ways, they carry the image and reputation of the college with them. In our student recruitment research, we find that it is often the casual remarks of an alumnus that turns a prospective student toward or away from an institution. Additionally, the alumni reflect the values of the institution. A supportive alumnus often leads to corporate and foundation gifts.
Generally, there are two major goals of an alumni study: 1) To learn the attitudes toward the institution and determine how the institution can better serve the alumni. 2) To determine why some alumni contribute to the institution and learn what might make noncontributors give.
Obviously, there is a monetary cost to these efforts. Even modest campus based research efforts require both financial and human resources. Yet the alternative also has its own costs. A college that relies on anecdotal information or simply measures its success against competing institutions, does so at its own risk. In these turbulent times, colleges and universities must continually assess their environment in creative and original ways. Strategic and marketing plans are merely wish lists if a college or university does not thoroughly understand its audiences -- attitudinally and demographically.