Market Research Drives College Transformation:

with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Dr. Dave Haney | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 078

Table of Contents

Market Research Drives College Transformation

Hiram College continues its transformation driven by market research, even as it undergoes change in its top leadership. The college had completed an academic prioritization process led by Dr. Lori Varlotta, the university’s former president. This process, which followed AAUP guidelines, worked with faculty to put together a strategic academic team, develop criteria for prioritization, and gain input throughout the process.

Additionally, Varlotta and Hiram’s development office raised money to provide salary benefits for those faculty members who were going to be laid off because of the prioritization process. Hiram’s 38-member board voted unanimously to support the academic prioritization recommendations.

The prioritization process organized the various departments into five different schools, which was a different configuration. This organization was not based on saving costs, but instead to make larger administrative units instead of the typical small college organization of departments consisting of 1-2 people. This gave Hiram the infrastructure for future growth.

While this transformation caused some pain, it was successful — and set the stage for Dave Haney’s work as Hiram’s interim president. Haney’s tenure began Sept. 1, 2020, and now he is ending his first academic year at Hiram. Of note, the college’s top administrative team that he inherited has 100-years of combined experience, which benefits the college through a high level of knowledge, stability, and teamwork.

Implementing Transformational Initiatives

Hiram is beginning a number of new initiatives that builds on the foundation that Varlotta set. All these had a foundation of transparency, to which Haney maintained a commitment, as that was integral to the academic prioritization process working as well as it did.

Haney’s focus to continue to transform Hiram involves getting back to the basics, which includes:

  • A focus on targeted marketing to drive enrollment. While the institution ranks highly, it has not been telling the compelling story about its offerings and successes. The college’s targeted marketing effort changed that. This effort includes digital marketing using an outside firm to have the bandwidth to target traditional undergraduate students. Hiram is already seeing benefits from this effort, with the college’s admits and deposits up 10-15% for over the previous year, despite the pandemic and the institutional changes.
  • Enhance online and adult education. Hiram is moving away from an old-fashioned in-person weekend college model to a modern online and adult program. This includes different degree programs, certificates, and badges to meet workforce requirements that are needed for industry in the area that Hiram serves. The institution also is creating new undergraduate degree programs in supply chain management, digital marketing, and e-sports management. At the graduate level, the college is focusing on adding degrees in the health sciences and environmental studies. This effort involves using a consortia model called lower-cost models for college (LCMC). The consortium allows for the creation of courses that allow students to create a specialization.
  • Increasing emphasis on transfer students. Hiram previously had programs that involved faculty going to a community college and teaching a version of a Hiram degree there. However, the college had not focused on encouraging community college students to transfer to Hiram. This is important because many students increasingly are starting at community colleges because of economic reasons.
  • Developing partnerships. Hiram is creating partnerships with businesses, government, and other education institutions.
  • Leveraging Hiram’s assets. The college is focusing on utilizing its assets wisely. For instance, Hiram has a strong environmental studies program that includes a 550-acre biological field station three miles from campus as well as another one in a national forest in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The college is trying to put together the various facets that it does in relation to sustainability, environmental studies, and encouraging being outdoors by creating connections and utilizing community engagement. Additionally, Hiram has five centers of excellence that are being leveraged through outreach to the community.
  • Infusing diversity and inclusion throughout the institution.

Using Market Research

Market research is critical for ensuring Hiram is moving in the right direction. One of the things that Hiram, a regional college, tries to be sensitive to, is the geographic area it serves. Seventy-five percent of the college’s students come from Ohio; most of these students come from Northeastern Ohio or Western Pennsylvania.

Additionally, administrators try to look at the area of workforce development when building new degree programs. Market research helps colleges prepare students for success in the job market after they graduate college. For example, the college is currently considering creating a computer science and information technology, which has been identified as one of the top needs in the area to fill the skills gap. This emphasis on meeting area needs also is informing the college’s teaching of soft skills, such as writing, communications, critical thinking, and experiential learning.

Leveraging Targeted Marketing

Previously, the college was putting commercials on network television and billboards. While this is important for general brand awareness, using targeted marketing allows Hiram to tailor its message through social media to its intended audiences, such as prospective students, to keep them involved and informed. This effort is beginning to pay off for the college, even as the enrollment cliff approaches.

Additionally, Hiram needed to expand beyond the traditional college student to provide programs for non-traditional students and communicate directly to these students. This approach allows Hiram to identify, share and leverage degree programs and offerings in which individual students are interested.

Hiram has invested more financially into targeted marketing because it will help them produce the results that are needed to grow their institution. College leaders realize that it is important to spend money to attract students who will be a good fit for Hiram. And it already has – applications are up 25% and deposits 15%.

Building Online Programs Students Want

Hiram has built a consortium of universities who can and do share courses and curriculum, and through this transformation is now offering an online management program and soon will have an online supply chain management program.

Additionally, the college already has done significant work to get the face-to-face and online delivery modes working more closely together. Hiram used to have separate marketing, admissions, and advising efforts for adult learners and traditional learners, but now with their transformational efforts, Hiram’s students can move more easily among online, adult, and traditional classes.

One of the key things with this is the college’s infrastructure. Hiram’s registrar and student services are committed to helping support these students, even though college leaders realize that what is going to be most effective and supportive for students will be more complicated for the college.

They are putting the students’ needs first.

Using Human-Centered Design Principles Through Market Research

To do this, Hiram has used human-centered design principles applied to higher education. This required a deep dive into what students really need – which is not always what they say they need. This requires leaders to be smart enough to figure out what will really meet the constituents’ – in this case, the student’s – needs. Therefore, leaders should not focus entirely on how the operations should work, but instead on what students need.

Implementing a Tuition Reset

The decision was made to do a tuition reset and lower Hiram’s sticker price by 30%. This is a risky move, but as Hiram gets its discounting more organized, they believe that more prospective students will consider their college since it is more affordable than many other institutions. This will make Hiram able to compete against its primary competition, regional state universities such as Kent State.

Haney also believes institutions need to help students and parents understand what the net price really is. The big battle is net price vs. sticker price because there is a huge gap between them. Additionally, a tuition reset has other implications. For example, students have noted that the tuition has come down thousands of dollars, but upperclassmen are paying the same amount.

Enrolling First-Generation and Low-Income Students

With the help of market research, Hiram enrolls a significant number of first-generation and low-income students. Many of these students come from a background of engagement in their communities and churches. Hiram is trying to provide them support services through special programs that include a community engagement aspect. In addition, Hiram has a robust Honors Program that also serves some of these students through community engagement.

Hiram also continues to beef up support for these students. This has been a struggle during the pandemic because students are only able to participate online instead of in person, but they have learned new ways to provide this support and haven’t had to fall back on old, ineffective processes.

Four Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  1. Put smart-resources into targeted marketing that will build on the strength of the institution and help reach students who are a great match for the college.
  2. Be engaged in the community. Work with workforce and development councils as well as legislators.
  3. Think about how to leverage the resources of the institution to reach non-traditional students, including elders, i.e., those retired people who are part of a growing demographic that are looking for new avenues of their life.
  4. Keep the institution’s team happy so they can remain productive in their work.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategy and change management consulting for higher ed institutions. 

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