A Guide to Market Research for Colleges and Universities

Published on Jun 16, 2021

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Anne Peasley

A Guide to Market Research for Colleges and Universities

It’s exciting to start a new program—especially for faculty and staff members who are tasked with qualifying a new idea or exploring options in a particular market. But market research, in higher education, is important to get right.

Implementing a program, especially in these times of online and hybrid delivery, requires additional investment in personnel and marketing and outreach resources, among other costs. If the program is unlikely to produce enough revenue to cover those budgetary costs, the program is unlikely to be sustainable—that’s why many colleges and universities have market research processes in place.

Emsi’s 2021 Guide to Market Research shows higher education practitioners how to prepare the best possible program proposal by incorporating labor market and education data. These steps can help you stay competitive, drive enrollment, and predict a new program’s sustainability before your institution invests time and resources.

And the best news? This data doesn’t have to be time-consuming or difficult to collect.

Topics for Market Research in Higher Education

Competitive Analysis with Degree Completion Data

What are the strengths and weaknesses of degree completion data, and how can you use it to find opportunities or verify the viability of a potential program?

Program Viability with Labor Market Data

How can you use labor market data (both industry and occupation data) to further verify the viability, timeliness, and relevance of potential programs?

Curriculum Planning with Employer & Job Postings Data

How can you use business and job postings data to construct programs that align with workforce needs and prospective student markets?

A Sample from the Guide: Education Data

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is one of the most useful data sources available to universities and colleges when evaluating new program potential.

Developed by the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS collects data from every college, university, and technical and vocational institution that participates in federal student financial aid programs.

IPEDS data is organized into a taxonomy called the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) system. The CIP system tracks and reports on fields of study and completions activity.

This data has a variety of uses for market research, primarily in terms of assessing the competitor landscape:

  • View nearby, competitor, and online program completion data to determine whether or not there is a strong demand for a specific program

  • Identify competitor programs, for further research to determine how you can differentiate your program

  • Learn how you might tweak your program name and course offerings, if a similar program or emphasis is popular

This information is extraordinarily valuable. In order to measure potential interest, improve upon your marketing strategies, and differentiate your program offerings, you have to know your competition.

 But because IPEDS is so comprehensive, it can be bewildering and difficult to navigate. CIP classifications do not necessarily match up with the exact names of majors, so even finding your institution’s own completers might be difficult. How can you make sense of it?

One method is to try different levels of detail. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at a more detailed level, you’ll often be able to find it with a broader view—and vice versa. The CIP taxonomy is organized on three levels:

  1. The two-digit series: general groupings of related programs

  2. The four-digit series: intermediate groupings of programs that have comparable content and objectives

  3. The six-digit series: specific instructional programs

IPEDS can also tell you if a specific institution offers a similar program. You can compare prices, enrollment, financial aid, student success, and finances. You can even see if it offers an online option for that program (this is one way to estimate online program popularity).

Unfortunately, if you are interested in further investigating online programs, IPEDS data only goes so far. While it distinguishes between online and residential program counts, information on the degree completion level is reported in aggregate by institution. But there is a trick for getting a sense of how many students are graduating with online degrees in a certain discipline. To do this, analyze completions data for traditionally online universities (such as Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, Capella University, etc.). By viewing these schools’ degrees and completions, you can estimate interest, popularity, and need.

How else can IPEDS data be used for market research in higher education? With this information, you can easily see whether or not your institution can compete with other programs in terms of tuition rates, scholarship offerings, etc. For example, if the degree program you want to start is popular but the average price of the program is higher than your institution would charge, the program may still be a worthwhile opportunity for you.

For more on Emsi data—available at the county, MSA, zip code, and census tract levels—or to see how else data can drive success at your institution, visit our higher education page.