Musings on New Markets for Enrollment Expansion (or Why It’s Okay to Put Squid on Pizza)

Carnegie Higher Ed Nov 19, 2019 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

My former students would tell you that I use food in most of my statistics examples. I like to think it harkens back to the days of math textbooks with happy customers walking out of the store with 32 watermelons and 16 oranges to set up some bizarrely specific fruit-based equation. But the reality is food examples are easy to digest, if you’ll allow the pun, and simplify what can sometimes seem complicated. For example, the task of figuring out where to expand enrollment markets. The intense competition for a high-quality and diverse student body requires consideration outside an institution’s backyard. But which markets might fit your institution best?

Consider pizza. In the United States, you’d be hard-pressed to find a pizza joint without pepperoni as a topping. But regionally there are different styles of crust and sauce options, and in other countries you might find squid (Japan), asparagus (Sweden), or a strained yogurt labane (Israel) as common and popular toppings. Large pizza chains like Domino’s or Pizza Hut exist globally, and their menus vary widely because they understand that different markets have different appetites. The same is true for potential students and the kinds of college experiences they are looking for. Some markets will be a perfect match with what you have to offer, even if you’re not the pepperoni equivalent of higher education.

Trying to find a perfect fit starts with a robust new market analysis. In short, you are arming yourself with the knowledge of what makes a market unique in its needs for students and their families. This helps with not only the selection of where you should look for more students, but also how you should create messaging for them. Do you talk about your prestigious programming or your beautiful campus? Do you show unwavering and warm support or feature fast-paced innovation? Knowing the market means understanding what strategies have a better chance of creating a return on investment.

But this begs an understanding of what truly changes the minds of prospective students. To know if your college or university will draw more successfully from Dallas or Amarillo or the rural Texas area in between, you need to know what affects college choice. In addition to the obvious need for a market to have young people looking for a college education (retirement communities could be a bust), our research has led to four key areas to understanding college choice:

1. Concrete institutional factors

Concrete factors are typically “fact-based” arguments for attendance like the size of a school. Although most markets prefer a midsize institution, some have a higher appetite for the more personal feeling of a small college, while others clamber to the largest options. Our prospect research has found that only about 10% of students are dead set on their choice of major, but having certain programming options is also more attractive to some markets.

2. Travel flexibility

Travel flexibility is typically more of a pragmatic factor mixed with emotion. Many people like to be close to home, but some markets have students more willing to fly across the country. Especially if you are looking for nationwide enrollment, understanding how easy it is to get to your school and the distance between you and your prospects is of key importance.

3. Price elasticity

Price elasticity describes how much a person can spend as well as how willing they are to budge on their budget based on factors of prestige. While some markets might want a bargain experience and flock to the cheapest institutions, others may have a greater interest in the reputation and clout that comes with a more expensive offering. Finding the right balance between an economical or luxury brand institutionally also impacts where one might find a willing student body.

4. Institutional personality 

Personality is often the crux of the intangible. In surveys, students expound the importance of the “feel” of a campus and college. This directly reflects the consistency and potency of your institution’s personality. Match the personality needs of a market and you add more power to all of your messaging. Of course, it’s first important to establish the “who” of your college or university.

Understandably, venturing into new markets for enrollment is intimidating. But as the landscape of higher education puts more pressure on attracting students from out of state and retaining the highest-caliber prospects, information and predictive modeling from factors like those discussed above will give your team an edge in not only identifying where to look, but how to draw in prospective students who are inspired by your institution, even if your school isn’t the pepperoni of the pizza world. Some people prefer squid.

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