Pull Up a Chair: Inviting Marketers to Program Development

Including marketers in the beginning stages of higher ed program development improves efficiency and feasibility.

5 minutes
By: Christopher Romano
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As the 2025 demographic cliff looms near and the COVID-impacted era of higher education settles and reshapes institutional enrollments, new program development at the undergraduate and graduate levels is becoming a strategy to grow, sustain or survive. These programs are designed with the intention of generating positive net revenue and contributing to the institutional bottom line. 

Lightcast (formerly Burning Glass Technologies), a labor market analysis firm, produced a report titled Bad Bets: The High Cost of Failing Programs in Higher Education. The report analyzed more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate degree programs that first graduated a student in 2012-13 to determine the number of graduates in the following five to six years. Lightcast found that 30% of these new programs graduated zero students six years after the first graduating class; almost 66% produced 10 or fewer graduates in those five to six years.

Significantly, these findings are consistent across all institutional types and sectors. If the past is predictive of the future, almost two-thirds of those programs are unlikely to generate enrollment and revenue as intended. Although it makes sense that some programs will not succeed or generate enrollment, the relatively few degrees awarded six years later reveals a disconnect between strategy and outcome. 

The absence of marketing input during the program development or feasibility stage is one reason for this misalignment. During the last five years, I have presented at national conferences on this topic, and the conversation has been similar across institutions: Program development and the feasibility process are typically housed in academic affairs, and marketing is often the last to know. Unfortunately, it is common for the higher ed marketing department to learn in late spring that the institution has approved a new program and set an enrollment target for the fall semester. Inquiries into the budget allocated for marketing a new program are answered with an all-too-common response: “There’s a good budget approved for this program, $10,000 or $15,000.”

Individuals who create new programs do not understand the expense of marketing. Marketers know that such a small allocation is not nearly enough for the targets assigned to these programs, nor is it enough to steal market share from another institution that offers the same program. When considering new program development, colleges and universities can employ strategies to engage marketing at the front end and to ensure new programs achieve their objectives.

Cheat Sheets

The marketing department should create a centralized document (i.e., cheat sheet)    with example expenses for certain marketing strategies, which faculty and departments can access and use when developing programs. For instance, many higher ed institutions want to see their new programs on billboards but do not realize the cost for a one-month run. In the competitive Northeast market, a one-month billboard run can cost between $4,000 and $10,000. Such a sum can be a program’s entire budget. This guide can be useful to department chairs and deans as they consider the type of marketing they think may be used for the program.

Marketing Reinvestment 

As new programs are developed, many faculty focus on reducing expenses in order to make the program appear as profitable as possible. Although this is a good practice to limit expenditure and to have individuals think about how to offer programs without extravagant expenses, there must be an institutional commitment and focus on what gets invested back into the program for marketing. Best practices indicate that 5% to 10% of projected gross revenue should be reinvested into marketing for the following year in order to sustain enrollment growth.

Competitor Data

Program developers should look at IPEDS data to determine how many graduates are produced annually by similar programs. The data will answer a key marketing question and will be indicative of how much money must be spent: Are we trying to recruit and enter a new territory, or are we trying to steal market share from another institution? Looking at this data further can provide enrollment trends at other colleges to determine a program’s long-term viability.

Launch Budget

Be sure to differentiate and create line items for program launch marketing, as well as continued marketing expenses. A program launch requires a greater push and investment to generate awareness for its entry into the marketplace, which can then be sustained in the subsequent years as a line item. Most programs do not budget for a launch and instead assume the annual budget can cover the launch and the media plan. This is a missed opportunity to invest in long-term success.

Marketer Involvement

Last, but most important, marketers need seats at the table during the feasibility and new program development processes on the front-end. Marketing cannot contribute to the academic review of the program, but based on target demographics and profiles of those target students, marketers can recommend the strategies that will be most effective, as well as the cost of each. 

Marketers know that $10,000 to $15,000 is not nearly enough for the targets assigned to these programs, nor is it enough to steal market share from another institution that offers the same program.

The challenge of sustaining enrollment in new programs is not new to higher education. However, as Lightcast acknowledged, “The stakes are high for US higher education, which is in an unprecedented financial crisis that was brewing even before COVID-19 struck.” As the demographic cliff looms and competition intensifies, new programs will continue to be key components of institutional strategies. The metric of success will not be the number of programs launched, but rather the number of programs that grow enrollment and generate additional positive net revenue beyond five years. Giving higher ed marketing leaders their much needed seats at the program development and feasibility tables will increase the likelihood of that success.

Christopher Romano

Christopher Romano

Contributor

Dr. Christopher Romano is the vice president of enrollment management and student affairs at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He earned his Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership from Creighton University, his Ed.M. in Higher Education Administration from Harvard University and his B.A. in International Relations from Saint Joseph’s University.


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