Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to weigh the value of college programs (Hint: It's not just about tuition costs)

You might have heard the buzz about Connecticut state university officials offering in-state tuition rates to students from New York, if they enroll certain graduate programs. If you missed it, reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas recently covered it for the Connecticut Mirror.

She reports that state officials are calling the initiative an "experiment" to help fill some graduate programs. But from where I sit, the decision to compete on price without first understanding why potential students are not enrolling in particular programs is risky. I'm not sure whether this is a real experiment to grow enrollments and save programs, or a temporary measure to delay their inevitable closing. So, my comments are not grounded in that knowledge.

Nevertheless, the need for a master's degree in the primary, secondary, higher, and corporate education marketplace is growing, particularly in Connecticut. This is primarily driven by the opportunity for advancement and pay increases, as well as state and local teacher requirements for advanced education.

Universities have had a modest influence over this trend. The challenge for any graduate education provider is creating the pull towards your institution. Most students will say the cost of education is high. Yet, it's clear that having a higher price does not automatically mean a program won't be competitive.

Besides reputation, universities can control the kind of program they offer, how it is delivered and managed, who they have teaching in it, and the level of support they offer their students. These factors typically have a much greater impact on competitiveness than cost.

This is why all educational institutions should be focused on the VALUE of what they offer. This should never be solely about price.

Most adult students entering graduate education programs are making a decision based on a combination of the quality of the overall program; subject/area interest and program focus; institution reputation; convenience and flexibility; qualifications, experience, and interests of faculty; and student support. These are levers that influence a university's ability to make a program viable, sustainable, and poised for growth.

For example, we launched Post University's Master of Education Online program three years ago. Since we did not have a long history in educating educators at the time, we recruited outstanding faculty focused on areas of need and interest for educators across many education contexts. We also established an advisory board comprised of respected leaders in the field of education.

We took at look at what was already available in the marketplace, and chose to develop concentrations that created a niche big enough to recruit sustainable student numbers. We evaluated the efficacy of doing online, hybrid, and traditional face-to-face program delivery.

We also focused on quality and well-defined program outcomes and communicated those attributes to prospective students. And, lastly we looked at how to match the cost of our programs to the value they offer to students. Today, our Master of Education Online program has grown to nearly 200 students.

I believe almost any institution can create a demand for quality graduate education programs that are offered at a reasonable cost. The question is whether or not the institution, its leaders and faculty, and in this case the state, are willing to take the steps necessary to recreate their models to be competitive in a changing higher education landscape.

New York's state universities have been doing more than keeping costs low to create demand for their programs. Before lowering tuition rates at Connecticut's state institutions, it would be worth evaluating those other things New York is doing.

What's your perspective on the issue?