Market Segmentation Applied to Education

Regular readers of this space will note that we are fans of the sort of market segmentation analysis that the Yankelovich and Nielsen firms have made popular in marketing conventional goods and services. NAIS, in a 2011 study, applied segmentation to an analysis of the parent motivations market for private, independent education, but, for the most part, consumers of education have been described demographically rather than psychographically. This is especially true in higher education, where the bi-partite segmentation scheme has for decades assigned students to either “traditional” (recent high school graduates expecting to complete degrees in four years) or “nontraditional” (everyone else, including older, working students) groupings.

A breath of fresh air comes from Haven Ladd, Seth Reynolds and Jeffrey Selingo of the Parthenon Group consultancy, and their study of 3,200 Americans in university or considering enrollment. These authors find the old traditional/nontraditional scheme wanting, and suggest an alternative 6-category segmentation framework for examining U.S. university students:

“This traditional process of ‘segmenting’ the student market by demographics—traditional vs. non-traditional students—is no longer sufficient in providing college leaders with the strategic understanding they need. [School] leaders need a more nuanced understanding of what drives the enrollment decisions of prospective students, and of what products and offerings meet these students’ needs.”

The categories they propose, and the relative proportions among the university student population appear as follows:


Two segments, Career Accelerator and Industry Switcher, seem typical of what are today called nontraditional students, more mature adults returning to the classroom. The Aspiring Academics are among the most driven, and probably account for almost all students eventually matriculating into highly selective universities.

A take-away for those in the private, independent K-12 sector is that our “output”–what figures as “input” in the Parthenon study, is more segmented than many acknowledge. Less than half fit the Aspiring Academics description, meaning that admission to an elite university may not be the best thing for quite a few students. Building academic programs that drive toward admission to one tier of universities may not serve all K-12 students well. Some still need to grow up after high school graduation, and an Ivy League school may not be the best place to do that.

Business and leadership, Strategy  |  permalink

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