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Which Programs Should I Develop for Online?


Nadine Brock

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Universities and colleges seek to boost enrollment by appealing to nontraditional student audiences with online, hybrid, and low-residence programs at all award levels. Our research finds that offering convenient formats in the student’s area of interest is one way students weed out school options.

How do you determine what specific programs to develop for online or distance delivery? Here’s my guide to making these strategic decisions wisely.

1. Student Demand Data

This is a critical component of your decision matrix. You can glean data on expected student cohort sizes for many disciplines. For new interdisciplinary programs, proxy program student cohort sizes may give you more insight than other estimates or opinion surveys.  

2. Employer Demand in Your Area

Labor market and occupation trends in your specific recruitment area for jobs that the academic program relates to are another key component of this decision. While some programs like Cybersecurity are needed nationwide in every sized market, other occupations or skill sets may not be as pervasive.

Examine the volume of jobs, the trends, and skills in specific occupations associated with your program for a future-proof concept. In the end, the academic award must lead to a job. Nontraditional students are keen to gain employment, increase earnings, or change careers—job market data is important not only for institutional leadership but to prospective students on program landing pages.

3. Competitor Intensity

Recent prospective adult student interviews we’ve conducted show that many are still considering close-to-home brands when they begin the search. While there may be many online players nationwide, there is comfort in knowing that the on-the-ground, around-the-corner college or university can meet their needs. Look at regional competition in the online/distance space for your program. You are most likely to take market share from existing regional competitors over time. Online or distance education is only going to grow so don’t wait.

4. Interview Employers

If all the above looks positive, talk to a few key employers in your area that would hire graduates of your proposed program. What specific skills do they need? Is there a special relationship you can create before other regional competitors do? Not only will you gain valuable feedback on your draft but a few key quotes from employers will bolster your program proposal to the provost, president, board…and accrediting body! Interviewing key employers will help determine complementary certificates as well.

5. Pro Forma Analysis with your CFA

Run the numbers of the expected cohort size, faculty load, administrative support, infrastructure needs, and marketing spend for this new program to make this even more enticing for your decision-making team.

6. Assign Program Champion

While you may have already done this, it is a critical step. Good ideas and plans fail when they lack a truly passionate program champion. Someone must drive this through the accreditation process, the faculty acceptance process, and be responsible for checking all the boxes.

7. Presidential Buy-In

The highest level buy-in on your leadership team is essential to overcome political hurdles that arise when online/distance learning is introduced. Hard choices about how dollars will be spent to grow enrollment are inevitable. Sound program proposals, as outlined above, are difficult to ignore and take weeks—not months—to perform.  

8. Marketing Commitment Begins Earlier Than You Think

If the program is a go, the program champion must start committing to thought leadership, webinars, blogs, and newsletters that mention the program by name. You’ll warm up the search engines, you’ll build a prospect contact list, and generate student demand prior to program launch. You can’t “buy” online student records to market to, so you’ll need to create demand organically.

While you could hand this responsibility to marketing, we see greater success when subject matter experts accurately and enthusiastically describe the program and tie it to career potentials. The passion of a key subject matter expert can be felt and prospective students will get a sense of the faculty and institution; something they can’t get from a national online player.

We are experts in consulting higher education clients on new academic program development and have completed hundreds of investigations into everything from liberal arts offerings to health professions and STEM programs.  

For help identifying which programs your institution should consider for online or distance delivery, please reach out to me.

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