Colleges and universities that offer programs in niche topics often find themselves in an interesting predicament: They believe that such programs are prudent to bring to market because they face less competition and often represent unique opportunities. But, by definition, niche topics attract a limited audience. Programs that don’t meet necessary enrollment goals and quotas are at risk of being shuttered, if not merely left underutilized with unrealized potential. So how do institutions fill niche programs? They must demonstrate to prospective students seeking a niche program that theirs will meet their needs as well as allow them to accomplish their life or career goals. Recently, we examined the market demand of a specific niche program in a market research study. A full two-thirds of survey respondents (all of whom had inquired about a related specific niche program) said they did not know their exact topic of interest at the time they started their search. In other words, these students were aware of the general subject area in which they were interested, but did not know the exact topic of the program in which they wished to enroll.
Most students interested in niche topics enter the enrollment funnel without an exact program in mind, but rather a general idea of what they are interested in. These prospective students may enroll in a niche program offered by your institution—even if it is not the exact program they initially had in mind—as long asyou can provide compelling information and make an affirmative case. This stands in stark contrast to our other research indicating that when a student seeks enrollment in a market-leading program like Business Administration, few (if any) methods or strategies will sway them toward a different topic.
You may be able to talk a prospective student into a niche topic, like business analytics, but you are not very likely to talk a prospective student out of a market-leading topic, such as Business Administration.
What is causing this paradox? Perhaps prospective students believe they must untangle a crowded marketplace in order to find their program, and this may be overwhelming to them. Take, for example, the topic of food choice. The New York Times presented data in their 2010 article, “Too Many Choices: A Problem that Can Paralyze” that too many options in food choice will prevent a buyer from making a purchase. However, data suggest that providing information to the consumer can help to narrow down choices and make a decision—even if they’re overwhelmed by the number of options available to them. The Times cites Benjamin Scheibehnne, a research scientist at the University of Basel in Switzerland who believes there’s a difference between choice overload and information overload. That is, people aren’t affected by the number of choices available, but rather the lack of information they have on each. When this theory of food choice is applied to niche programs in academia, it’s easy to conclude that if prospects are given pertinent and persuasive information about the program, it’s easier for them to make a decision. It’s the job of the marketing and admissions staff to provide this information and present it in a way that speaks to their audience.
Converting niche students into enrollments
Your admissions staff must demonstrate to those who are looking for a niche program that they’ve come to the right place and that you offer a better program (even if it’s not their initial program of interest). Have your admissions staff take the following three steps in guiding a prospective student:
Find what their educational goals encompass. Does the program they initially followed meet that goal? Your admissions staff must be able to address how your programs intersect with the prospective student’s needs, either directly or tangentially.
Uncover what brought them to your door. What was it about your institution and programs that led that student to take the time to inquire? It’s likely that something will come up in the discussion, upon which your staff can begin to make an affirmative case for the related program you offer—as opposed to the program the prospective student may believe he or she wants.
“Think on your feet.” If the initial niche topic discussed turns out to not be right for your prospective student, offer alternatives. In order to do this, it’s imperative that admissions staff fully understand all of your program options—and can speak thoughtfully about them. If a student is unsure of the exact program they need, your staff must provide alternatives, regardless of the subject they “came in” thinking they wanted.
This recent data has proven one thing: Institutions that can make the case for their niche programs can enroll prospects who thought they were looking for something else. Why? Because these prospects took the time to seek out your institution and inquired about a program of interest, which demonstrates an intent that mustn’t go unanswered. So if your admissions staff can persuade the prospective student that your program is the right one to meet their needs, even if it’s not exactly what they came in looking for, that’s an additional enrollment from a student who would have gone elsewhere. Of course this will not happen on its own; enrolling students in niche programs is hard work. Your enrollment staff must be prepared to have a personalized conversation with each prospective student about their interests, needs, and wants. Help your prospects untangle the marketplace and show them that you have the program to meet their life or career aspirations. Because after all, “All those who wander are not lost” . . . just in search of some guidance.