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Business Officer Magazine
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Market Share Aware

American Distance Education Consortium plans several projects to help its members to market their distance education programs—an area that requires a big boost.

By Karla Hignite

One area of great need for most nonprofit higher education institutions is better marketing of their distance education opportunities, says Janet Poley, president and CEO of American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC), a nonprofit consortium of approximately 65 state universities and land-grant colleges, headquartered at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Currently, ADEC is focusing resources on several pilot marketing projects on behalf of its member institutions and has partnered with a firm to assist with market research efforts.

To find out how some higher education institutions are reaching out to students who prefer to get their education online, read "Out There" in the March 2011 issue of Business Officer.

One example involves working with Washington State University–Pullman to identify target audiences for an online certificate program in organic agriculture. While one obvious market segment is the university's plant science majors, a broader view of potential students includes business majors and working professionals who are already employed in the state's fruit, wine, and produce industries. Students from other states and even outside the United States residing in agro–eco-regional areas where growing seasons and conditions are similar would likewise be prime markets, notes Poley.

In fact, ADEC is exploring a number of eco-regional collaborations for targeted programming on a broad scale. For instance, residents in Latin America or the Caribbean might benefit from the degrees and certificates offered by a number of U.S. land-grant and state institutions that provide specialized knowledge they could apply in their home countries, says Poley. Where prospective markets are identified, ADEC member institutions can adjust or modify existing curricula to better target programs to an international audience.

Collaborate to compete. Depending on the program and the geographical distance, it may make sense for institutions to offer a joint program, notes Poley. This is nothing new to ADEC members, but especially within an online environment where state and geographic boundaries no longer hinder students from pursuing a degree from an institution hundreds of miles away, colleges and universities would do well to consider how to work together, Poley says.

That's not to suggest that three institutions seeking to launch separate degree programs in forensic science, for instance, should join forces to develop one master program instead. It does mean those institutions would benefit from understanding market demand before each individually rolls out its plan for granting release time for course development, explains Poley. "The real question is how to develop high-quality content that is in demand and deliver that content across institutions with a reasonable amount of choice so that all are able to expand their market share," she says.

Find your distance niche. One marketing plus for ADEC members is that their programming tends to be concentrated in the applied sciences. "This represents a core strength we believe we can capitalize on within distance learning markets," notes Poley. "The sciences are typically among the more difficult programs to translate into an online learning environment, and land-grant institutions are among those making great strides in developing virtual labs and figuring out how to accomplish scientific simulations online," adds Poley.

Other ways to extend the marketing edge of ADEC members should emerge from new ties established with community colleges. ADEC recently voted to extend membership to community colleges and systems. "We'll be looking for new ways to partner together in distance and online offerings," says Poley. One immediate way may be allowing students to cross-register to begin taking some of the more technical courses offered within a major online while still attending their community college, or vice versa, explains Poley. "We need more collective collaboration to ensure that our total programming is competitive and appealing across the board."

KARLA HIGNITE, Universal City, Texas, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.