Improve How you Design and Market Your School: The Real Reason Students Enroll - Converge Consulting

Improve How you Design and Market Your School: The Real Reason Students Enroll

In every sector, more than 75 percent of all new products and services fail. In your own life, you have probably experienced frustration as companies take an established and beloved product or service and add features that are at best, irrelevant to you or, at worst, make the service more complicated to use and more expensive. From your perch at a college or university, you have likely been frustrated as prospective, current, and past students gave you feedback that did not seem to improve your program’s outcomes.

The reason for these struggles is not because organizations have forgotten to collect enough data or listened hard enough to their customers. We have more “big data” than ever before and yet the professionals designing products and services miss just as often. Organizations similarly spend more hours and dollars on focus groups and innovative ways to listen to their users and customers in an effort to improve what they offer. They load up on features, luxuries, discounts, and glitzy marketing messages. Yet, the swings and misses keep on coming.

Organizations miss because the common techniques for creating something new fail to capture the root causes for why users consume and the actual context in which they do so that forces people to make tradeoffs.

As individuals, we typically just find ourselves having to get things done. We all have “jobs to be done” in our lives—the progress that we are trying to make in a particular circumstance.

In my upcoming book with Bob Moesta titled Choosing College (Jossey Bass, September 2019), we dive deep into research that reveals the causal reasons why students enroll in colleges and universities to offer students and parents sound advice for how to choose school—as well as important guidance for institutions on how to design the experiences they offer students to bolster their chances of success.

One of our takeaways is that colleges and universities often misunderstand why students enroll for four core reasons:

  1. Believing that just because people “should” do something because of a need in their life, they will
  2. Grouping people by demographics
  3. Designing initiatives to fit a category rather than to address people’s circumstances
  4. Listening to what people say rather than watching what they do


Demographics in particular are tricky. Schools know the exact demographics of their student population—age, gender, race, marital status, first-generation college, income level, and more—and often accordingly tailor their offerings. The problem is that from an individual’s perspective, the world isn’t structured by customer category. Lumping people together by surface-level characteristics that correlate only loosely with the different circumstances and challenges individuals face leads organizations to build one-size-fits-all offerings that serve few well.

Instead by focusing first on the “Job” that students are hiring schools to help them do, schools can begin to focus and organize around a Job to design better services for specific circumstances.

In higher education, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) adopted the jobs to be done thinking to redesign its school. Several years back, SNHU’s President, Paul LeBlanc, realized that the University was in essence serving students with at least two different jobs to be done. Using the language of our research from the book, one was the student who was hiring college to “Help Me Get Into My Best School.” Students here were focused on things like sports teams, climbing walls, and interaction with faculty around the meaning of life. The second Job LeBlanc noticed was that many adult students SNHU served were in what we call the “Help Me Step It Up” Job. Students in this Job cared about things like convenience, customer service, speedy completion times, and credentials. They were hiring SNHU’s online program, which the university had historically treated as a side project.

As LeBlanc’s team dug into the jobs to be done theory, they realized that they were treating these students with very different jobs the same. For example, SNHU began talking to traditional high school students about basic financial aid information their junior year. Not having specifics for at least a year worked fine for both the student and the University. Any student inquiry would take weeks to resolve because there was no urgency on either side. But for students in the Help Me Step It Up Job, they needed answers on financial aid right away. Their time to act was now or never. Waiting hours, let alone weeks, to respond was too late. What had to change at SNHU? “Pretty much everything,” LeBlanc told the authors of the book Competing Against Luck. Students in the Help Me Step It Up Job needed quick responses to inquiries about financial aid. They also needed to know whether previous college courses would count as credit toward an SNHU degree within days. SNHU redid its advertisements for its online programs to focus on the training students needed to advance in their career, but also the emotional and social dimensions around the pride one feels in realizing a goal. When asked in an advertisement why they earned their degree from SNHU Online, one father said, “I did it for you, bud,” as he held back tears as his young son said, “Congratulations, Daddy!” And SNHU realized that it was not enough just to enroll students, but it had to support them to and through graduation. SNHU Online assigns students a personal adviser, for example, who stays in constant contact with students and picks up on red flags even before students do in many cases.

So does this mean demographics and personas are irrelevant? Not at all.

Once you understand the job to be done that students have when they enroll, layering demographics back in can be quite useful—not to predict a student’s motivations, but to develop different personas, or semi-fictional representations of a “typical” student. Segmenting a Job by persona gives more depth into understanding a Job’s context. That in turn allows an institution to better design experiences to help students make progress—as well as to reach these students through marketing campaigns.

The ultimate advice for universities? To better design experiences to reach students and help them succeed, start with causality, then build personas by factoring in your students’ characteristics to design sterling solutions.

About the Author

Michael Horn is a Senior Partner at Entangled Solutions. He is also the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a nonprofit think tank. Michael is the author of the award-winning book, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” and the Amazon bestseller, “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools”. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, Choosing College.

Michael Horn
Michael Horn
April 29, 2019