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Research on a Budget

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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“ Whatever your particular interest (e.g., recruiting, fundraising, branding, etc.), you will be able to find related content. ”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve stressed the importance of market research and chances are high that at least some of you are thinking, “But we don’t have the budget for research.”

With that in mind, I’m happy to share some ideas for useful research that doesn’t cost a fortune. This week I’m reviewing options for obtaining relevant secondary data and next week the focus is on low-cost options for gathering new data.

Secondary Data

1. Your own institution

One of your best sources of data is your own institution. In particular, consider the data that is regularly collected by:

  • Your IR (institutional research) department
  • The registrar
  • Your alumni office
  • Admissions
  • Student affairs

Based on my experience, these offices often have volumes of data, but often lack the time, expertise (IR folks notwithstanding), or even specific reason to analyze it. Even a small investment in analysis can offer dramatic returns.

2. The federal government

While the federal government is a vast repository of data, there are three agencies that are particularly helpful to higher ed. First, the U.S. Census Bureau provides everything from basic demographic data to educational trends. You can learn, for example, the current and projected number of 17-year-olds in a given area and whether the population there is increasing, flat, or declining.

Second, the National Center for Educational Statistics is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations. In the higher ed space, the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) offers up a wealth of data via a series of interrelated surveys of colleges and universities. IPEDS data reflect all higher education institutions participating in Federal financial aid programs.

Finally, the Commerce Department offers data on job trends and other economic indicators. Since students are especially interested in majors that lead to jobs, it is essential to keep a pulse on the job market.

The odds are high that your IR office is already aware of these and other sources of existing data. Your challenge, then, is to convert this data into marketplace intelligence.

3. Competitor research

Another significant source of low-cost data and marketplace intelligence are your competitors’ websites. Here are some things you can routinely locate (and they will likely find on yours as well):

  • Strategic plan and vision
  • Enrollment and graduation data
  • Alumni data
  • Financial aid policies and scholarships
  • Brand strategy and assets
  • Marketing plan
  • Recently completed market research

Related reading: Numerical Fluency and the Importance of Market Research

4. Associations and organizations

Every college and university in the country belongs to one or more associations and these associations often conduct research on behalf of their members. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) is just one example. NAICU offers myriad reports on everything from college cost and affordability to annual studies on tuition and available financial aid.

Two more examples:

  • The Pew Research Center website has a huge database of free research, ranging from political attitudes and economic situations to social media usage and marketing statistics. Pew resources are either free or very low cost.
  • Statista boasts over 1 million stats and facts within 600 industries for more than 50 countries. It contains statistical data on more than 80,000 topics from over 22,500 sources. Statistica is a relatively low-cost, fee-based service.

The Gale’s Encyclopedia of Associations is an extremely comprehensive listing of the more than 23,000 national and regional associations and organizations in the U.S., many of which conduct market research for their members. Can you guess which “industry” has the greatest number of associations? If you said, “education,” you are right. Although a subscription service, it is likely you already have access through your campus library.

5. Just Google it

I still am continually amazed at all the stuff you can find online. For example, I searched, “How students choose a college” and found:

  • How students choose which college to attend
  • Factors to consider when choosing a college
  • The 7 things students think about when choosing a college
  • The top 10 factors for choosing a college
  • How today’s students decide which college to attend

Of course, when using Google or any search engine, carefully evaluate the suitability, currency, and credibility of the data/research you uncover.

6. Publications and blogs—free and low cost

There are a handful of free publications/blogs that often cite higher ed research you should be regularly reading. High profile ones include:

Whatever your particular interest (e.g., recruiting, fundraising, branding, etc.), you will be able to find related content. As you review this material, keep a filter in place—many of these sources have a perspective or even an agenda that should be factored into any interpretation.

If you’d like to discuss these and other options for your institution’s research data, reach out for a conversation.

Next week look for low-cost options for gathering your own data.

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