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Finding Your Value Fingerprint: Assessing Value Across the Student Lifecycle

The third in The Maguire Network pricing and value article series

The Big Questions

Understanding the perceived value of an education at your institution is central to building and sustaining enrollment success and financial health. Is your institution a good value? On what factors do your audiences make this determination? It depends on who you ask.

The important components of value and the very definition of value actually change as students progress through the educational lifecycle – from prospective student to enrolled student to graduate. Therefore, effectively answering key value questions requires assessing perceptions at varying moments in a lifelong relationship between the individual and the institution. It also requires soliciting feedback to understand more fully how and why perceptions of educational value vary across these key constituencies.

What is Educational Value?

The issue of value in higher education is one with tangled, interwoven threads of cost, quality, and student perceptions, preferences, and priorities. At its core, however, "value" is a relationship between key constituencies’ perceptions of a college or university’s quality, the cost of education, and the amount of monetary worth they associate with the institution. The compelling truth is that value and low cost are not typically synonymous.

Students receiving multiple admission offers do not simply enroll at the least-expensive institution. Instead, some choose higher-priced options in search of better teaching, research opportunities, institutional prestige, alumni connections, or a wide variety of other benefits compared to the lower-cost schools. At higher levels of perceived value, prospective parents and students are willing to pay more, assume greater debt, or otherwise deepen their financial commitment, in order to receive the expected greater benefits from the experience.

We have learned over the years that educational value is not a constant, but a variable that depends on:

  • Place – different institutions have different “value fingerprints” and subgroups within an institution often have different perceptions of value;
  • Time – perceptions of value vary considerably across a college or university’s core audiences as the relationships evolve over time; and
  • Change – perceptions can shift based on direct institutional public relations efforts as well as substantive educational and experiential improvements.

What is your institution’s “Value Fingerprint?”

The features that drive perceptions of value vary substantially across the spectrum of higher education institutions. For some, perceptions of value are based heavily on academic dimensions, such as availability of majors and small classes. For others, non-academic factors such as student life (e.g., extracurricular opportunities and campus community), affordability, facilities (e.g., classrooms, libraries, and student housing), or outcomes (e.g., employment opportunities after graduation and preparation for graduate study) are at the forefront. The specific, important value factors and constituency perceptions regarding those factors couple to form a composite “value fingerprint” that is unique to each institution.

Incorporating Multiple Perceptions of Value

Not only do these factors – the drivers of value – differ among institutions, they also vary considerably within institutions, across core constituencies. As the relationship between student and institution changes over time, so too do the factors that determine students' perceptions of the institution’s value. Indeed, what drives educational value for prospective students often differs from what drives value for current students or alumni.

Figure 1 below illustrates this phenomenon. In this example, each of the five factors is important to each of the three audiences, but the relationships of those assessments differ across constituencies. Cost (1) is most important among prospective students; academic quality (2) plays a key role in the value perceptions of all three audiences; student life (3) and facilities (4) are of greater importance among current students; and outcomes (5) play the strongest role among alumni. Additionally, subgroups of each core audience (by gender, ethnicity, geography, etc.) tend to have different primary drivers of value. For example, female students tend to place higher importance than males on diversity and safety, while males place higher importance on athletics.

Changing Perceptions of Value

You must understand the past and present first to envision an optimal future. Improving value perceptions for your institution means dusting for your “value fingerprint” by performing the systematic research needed to understand your audience-specific value drivers. You don’t have the time and resources to do everything, and that’s just the point. Knowing your specific value fingerprint will guide your planning and strategy, helping you target your work – from documentation to messaging to creating new offerings, programs, or administrative services – much more effectively and efficiently.

The fourth and final article in The Maguire Network pricing and value series will examine what it takes to change value perceptions.

Read the first two articles in the Maguire Network series:

"What’s Your Value Proposition? You Have One, Right?" from the May 2008 issue

"Make Your Best Offers: The Power of Price Sensitivity" from the July 2008 issue.

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