The Importance of Primary Research in Higher Ed: Why Schools Miss the Point of “Moneyball”

Eric GrovesSenior Vice President, Campus PartnershipsAugust 31, 2020

I have discussed this with many institutions, but the availability of secondary data has created a monster on many campuses. There is a belief by leaders that they can “Moneyball” their program mix by grabbing lists of degree conferrals, labor market data, and even student demand data from the testing agencies. They then turn those data points into well-visualized Tableau charts to decide what new programs to bring to market. Broader access to this data has created a market unto itself, with companies providing institutions with access to data and summarized recommendations on which programs to start—all based on secondary data alone. These companies hit campus leaders with canned messages like this:

“Dear President So and So, we noticed through the NRCCUA Database that 100 applicants listed that they were interested in Equestrian Studies. The Labor Market for Horse Trading indicates they will add 100,000 jobs in the next decade. Yet degree conferrals for these majors are not projected to meet market demand. We believe you should look into developing an Equine Studies major.”

This one-size-fits-all approach leads to group-think where colleges chase the same majors, regardless of their particular strengths, faculty interests, and competitive context.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Moneyball by Michael Lewis

For those of you unfamiliar with Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, it looked at the Oakland A’s baseball franchise of the early 2000s. The key figure of the book, A’s general manager Billy Beane, is tasked with replacing the production of a few superstars who were leaving the club with players from the farm system and castoffs from other clubs. Beane does this with a revolutionary analytical approach to looking at the value of professional baseball players.

What’s often missed about Moneyball is that the key isn’t the stats, it’s understanding the context! It would be wonderful if we could just take existing data and run it through a statistical package—often mistaken as the point of the book—but the context of Beane’s economic situation and the players he was able to sign is the real story of Moneyball. The statistics identified players, but Beane had to decide which would fit his context.

Putting the YOU in university program demand and development

Enrollment and Moneyball: primary research in higher education
Contextualizing research for your institution is critical to making the right decisions.

So, in spite of the jobs available in that industry, the number of degrees offered, or even what 16-year-olds are interested in, the real questions that are often not addressed in market research discussions for program development are whether students are interested in taking that program from YOU, with YOUR modality, YOUR price, YOUR brand position, YOUR reputation, etc.

In one recent conversation with a school, we discussed some of their extended studies programming while looking at their enrollment data for those programs. Interestingly, they had a Criminal Justice major with no students in it.

Why? I asked.

“Actually, that program was approved three years ago, and we have yet to enroll a cohort, despite the fact that there are three schools in town who have a ton of Criminal Justice graduates and the job market is booming!”

It gets worse: they had sunk more than $100k in digital marketing in last-ditch attempts to drive enrollment to the program (more out of desperation).

I’ll say it again: the question isn’t solely whether there is a market. The real question is whether students are interested in taking that program from YOU, with YOUR modality, YOUR price, YOUR brand position, YOUR reputation, etc.

When investing in new programs, you need to know not only that the market exists, but that your institution will be able to successfully compete. That’s the context that separates the contenders from the also-rans.

Primary research and college program development

Primary research, where institutions survey their actual market to assess their interest in a specific offering, is essential in program development discussions these days. Most universities that do program development well can add 5-10 new programs a year, maximum (this can include co-curricular programs in some cases). So the majority of those (if not all) had better drive enrollment and revenue growth, or it is a lost opportunity! In fact, really good primary research can even help with enrollment projections to feed into the essentials of every business plan: “return on investment” and ”break-even analysis.”

RNL provides market research services for universities in many areas, including Academic Program Demand Analysis and Price Sensitivity Analysis. These services often feed into Strategic Enrollment Planning, where RNL is a leader in helping universities to develop a robust and sustainable process for enrollment growth. RNL has published the definitive book on strategic enrollment planning and has multiple workshops and seminars on the subject every year.

The reason why so many institutions turn to us for these services is that our primary research provides that context that reveals what YOU should do. Not how you can mimic your competitors or chase market trends or build a major that eats vital budget dollars. It’s research that reveals why students want to choose YOU, the programs YOU provide, or the programs they really want YOU to provide. That’s the context that guides decision making and turns campuses into enrollment champs.

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About the Author

Dr. Eric Groves joined the enrollment management team in 2014, bringing with him 15 years of higher education experience, as a director of undergraduate admissions for 12 years and as a director of development for...

Read more about Eric's experience and expertise

Reach Eric by e-mail at Eric.Groves@RuffaloNL.com.

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