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3 Questions Higher Ed Must Answer to Survive the Era of Uncertainty

Posted On  October 8, 2020

COVID-19 has disrupted nearly every aspect of life, and higher education is no exception.

Even prior to COVID-19, traditional postsecondary education systems were putting great effort into remaining relevant and attracting top talent, reconsidering antiquated financial models and admissions procedures, and meeting shifting learning needs of students and working adults.

With COVID-19 a constant menace, institutions are attempting to adapt to massive shifts in learning dynamics, new student economic barriers, and changing job market landscapes.

Patience levels are running low during these trying times. The value equation is also shifting: how long can sky-high tuition rates stay the same when most of the instruction resides on Zoom and benefits of the in-person learning experience are a shadow of what they are in a non-COVID world?

The virus will eventually recede, but there are both short and long-range opportunities for higher education institutions to better deliver on the critical needs of students and faculty, and to evolve and innovate with the rapidly changing landscape.

Institutions can benefit from answering 3 fundamental research questions to fuel strategic plans:

How can we actively refine our current learning arrangements, financial programs, and student services during these challenging times?

Answering this question requires smart approaches to understanding your “audience” of students, faculty, and other stakeholders. Remaining in the ivory tower won’t get higher ed through the monumental challenges it faces.

Staving off churn and keeping students on a steady progression path are centrally important during these times. Meeting these goals requires maintaining an ongoing pulse with both student and faculty populations. Longitudinal respondent panels, or “communities,” are an ideal approach for not only keeping a connected read on current sentiments, but for also uncovering pain points and previously undetected unmet needs.

Communities offer rich engagement experiences that often encompass a combination of data, photo, and video insights. The format also lends itself well to creative projective techniques, and presents the opportunity for endless qualitative offshoot projects (digital in-depth interviews, student triads, digital ethnographies, etc.) to bring student stories to life and delve deeply into pain points that can inspire new and creative solutions.

Who should we be seeking to attract with our educational offering post COVID-19, and what are the product and marketing levers we can pull?

The higher education market is changing fast. Unprecedented job losses and furloughs have prompted many adults to reconsider career paths and refocus toward avenues that provide greater stability and lower risk of redundancy or automation. Institutions who recognize this shift are benefiting from broadening their definition of the potential addressable student populations.

To understand the evolving market, higher ed institutions should conduct attitudinal segmentation research to cluster current and potential students based on shared beliefs, motivations, learning styles, orientations toward technology, and social interaction needs.

Not only will they uncover new potential markets, but this research helps prioritize segments by size and growth potential. The total market will split into a distinct set of consumer segments or “mindsets,” and a prioritization analysis guides institutions on which segments to focus on, along with white space opportunities for attracting and retaining these prize pupils.

Given inevitable shifts in the higher education landscape, how does our brand stay relevant?

The first step in planning for the future is understanding what is working in the current landscape. Students will largely expect that a host of new digital learning tools will continue to be integrated into programs post-COVID. Understanding what elements create the best combination of in-person and online learning will improve student progression and overall program satisfaction.

On a higher level, brand health and positioning research will inform your institution’s current position and unique strengths, shedding light on competitor momentum and advantages. A well conceived brand research program will run both during and after COVID to measure the two realities.

To drive to the best outcomes, properly defining your competitive set is key, so that you understand its full range, from traditional collegiate institutions to increasingly popular skill-building certificate programs. Meaningful brand research will also guide you on how to distinguish your institution on what matters most, answering the white space needs that are naturally arising out of new learning dynamics.

Higher education institutions play one of the most important roles in shaping the future of our society. But their future has never been more uncertain. Asking the right questions now will help set the stage for post-COVID-19 success.


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