Full Service Marketing for Higher Education, Health Care & B2B Marketing


10 Tough Research Questions You’ve Likely Never Asked, But Should

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

Share On  

Most of us are comfortable using research to guide strategy. In fact, we frequently ask why students attend or donors give, or determining how much it costs to recruit a student or secure a donor. But beneath that stratum of easy questions is a layer of much tougher ones; tougher to ask, tougher to answer, and sometimes tougher to apply.

Here is a list of our top 10 tough research questions:

1. What are the reasons your last strategic plan underperformed or even failed?

Calculation: Hold one-on-one interviews and group discussions with the most recent planning team and major campus leaders and influencers. Identify issues, policies, structures, and perhaps individuals, that negatively impacted the planning process, strategy formation, and/or plan execution.

Application: Use insights gained to address planning obstacles before beginning the next planning process.

2. What are the 3 or 4 biggest problems and opportunities facing your institution?

Calculation: Conduct an internal and external analysis to identify and gain agreement on the top three or four institutional problems and opportunities.

Application: Build your strategic and day-to-day operational plans around these issues. Examine existing plans and remove goals, actions, and functions that do not pertain to these issues.

3. What kind/type of student and donor do you serve best?

Calculation: Examine data regarding students who persist and donors who repeat. Create a demographic, academic, and psychographic profile of these individuals.


Students: Direct further research at how this cohort identifies and chooses which college to attend. Understand their communication habits and expectations.

Donors: Direct further research at this cohort to identify their giving needs and the communication channels they prefer.

4. What is the time to graduation for students over the last 5 years?

Calculation: Look at each full-time student over the past five years, being sure to separate students who began as freshmen and those who transferred in.

Application: Ideally this number is flat. Better yet, it is decreasing. If increasing, determine why. Institutional factors influencing this rate often involve either class scheduling, advising, or the number of classes. It is imperative that you do as much as possible to decrease the time it takes to graduate. This is one of the most effective things your school can do to lower the relative cost of an education. Don’t forget to compare your findings with those of your major competitors.

5. What is the average debt load of your graduates over the last 5 years?

Calculation: Calculate the amount of financial aid debt students accrue while at your institution. Do a separate calculation for students who transfer in with existing debt.

Application: Like time to graduate, your hope is that the debt load is flat over the last five years. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. You have a big problem if the debt load of your students is demonstrably higher than those of similar students at competing institutions. If the debt load of your students is increasing, you must spend serious time reducing costs and increasing the perception (and reality) of value. 

Note: Here are a couple of sites to help calculate and compare debt loads:

Student loan calculator

Student loan debt by state

6. Which academic programs are underperforming and why?

Calculation: Look at the cost of offering a program and then compare that cost with tuition generated by the program.

Application: If you have academic programs that consistently consume more dollars than they generate, and these programs are not missional in nature, then you need to determine why they are falling short. Chances are they are: 1) of low academic quality; 2) poorly promoted; or 3) have limited marketplace (students and/or employers) interest. If “1” or “2,” fix. If “3,” terminate.  

Note: Separate calculations must be made for individual courses that serve the core. There is every likelihood that you may have a course that is doing well within a major that is not. Remember, one of the reasons faculty and others like big academic cores is that they generate greater need for courses/majors that otherwise would be in difficulty.

Related reading: Enhancing the Marketability of Your Academic Programs

7. How do different advisors impact retention?

Calculation: Organize your retention data by academic advisor.

Application: Identify those advisors who either need further training or who should be removed from your advising pool.

8. What is the relative worth of key administrators?

Calculation: Make a list of your 15 to 20 highest paid administrators. Rank by salary.

Application: Look at the list and ask yourself of each person, “Are they worth the money?” Chances are some of your administrators receive high salaries not because of worth, but because of longevity.

9. What are your sources of competititve advantage?

Calculation: Conduct external brand value research to determine what prospective students value you most (and are willing to pay for) and internal research on why your best faculty and staff stay.

Application: Identify those compelling qualities and characteristics and make them central in your messaging strategy. Focus especially on those qualities and characteristics not offered by your top competitors.

10. What is your brand value?

Calculation: Collectively review your cost to recruit a student, the average debt load of graduates, the difficulty/cost of recruiting and retaining great faculty and staff, and the difficulty/cost of attracting donors, especially major donors. If these numbers are increasing, your brand value is decreasing.

Application: Develop a comprehensive brand platform that embraces your sources of competitive advantage as well as the college-choice expectations of prospective students and the giving needs of donors. Develop a verbal and visual vocabulary to communicate your brand.

Interested in answering some or even all these questions? Please drop me a line. Stamats has long been a market leader in research that offers information, but more importantly, insight.

Read next: Using Market Research to Build and Enhance Your Brand

Ready to Get Started?

Reach out to us to talk about your strategy and goals.

Email Us