Giving the Students
What They Want: Program Enhancements Deliver More Value to Master's Students

Written by Judy Tierney

How does a university dedicated to higher education, where the majority of students are immersed in doctoral programs, remain attractive to students focused on master's degrees?

Russ Natoce Russ Natoce

The answer, according to Russ Natoce, NCU chief marketing officer, is simple: Give the students what they want.

Last year, Natoce set out to do just that by spearheading research to better understand what master's candidates look for in an online program and what elements are most important to them. The results are in, and based on the findings, Natoce and his team have already implemented changes to better serve these students.

"We took the time we needed to conduct the appropriate research so we could provide the greatest impact," explains Natoce. "It was the right thing to do for our students."

The first part of the research focused on the mindset of the typical online master's student. What drives them? What do they hope to gain from the degree? The study revealed three primary motivators:

  • The opportunity to advance in their current field
  • The ability to move to a new field
  • The chance to make more money

For the second part of the research, the University looked internally to evaluate how to pinpoint and most effectively reach and influence students.

Finally, using a discrete choice model – a sophisticated research tool – NCU developed a comprehensive set of dimensions that students might consider when selecting a master's program. Respondents compared elements against each other such as flexibility, cost, reputation, and career resources, and indicated which were the most critical. From there, researchers were able to determine the combination of features that students find most optimal.

"We identified areas where we could do significantly better. Specifically, we focused on scholarships, employment resources and reputation."

—Russ Natoce

"There were several areas in which we were doing extremely well like program format and flexibility, high-quality faculty – all of whom have doctoral degrees – and outstanding enrollment advisors," says Natoce. "However, we identified areas where we could do significantly better. Specifically, we focused on scholarships, employment resources and reputation."

From a scholarship perspective, NCU has initiated two important changes: enhanced scholarship offerings and a tuition lock for all newly enrolled master's students. Natoce says that NCU has already expanded the amount of scholarships and is now offering more full-tuition scholarships based on student preferences. The tuition lock guarantees that the price of tuition will not change during their NCU master's programs, even if students take a short leave of absence.

"Most of our master's students are here for two to three years, and knowing that their tuition won't increase gives them the predictability they want," explains Natoce. "However, we know that life sometimes gets in the way, which is why we decided to offer up to a six-month leave, just in case. As long as students come back within this time period, we'll honor the same tuition rate."

On the employment advising front, the University now has several new helpful resources. Prospective students can use a built-in tool on www.ncu.edu to identify the skills they'll need for a given job title and then read about the NCU degrees that fulfill those requirements. Students can use the same tool to research the types of opportunities available in different geographical locations. For example, they can see how many people in a particular area were employed with a given job title in the past 12 months along with the average salary.

"[Headhunters] will have an entire class of newly minted graduate students with great skills that match employers' needs."

—Russ Natoce

NCU is partnering with several employment resource firms to help master’s students find jobs as they approach their graduation date. "This element is a win for everyone involved," says Natoce. "These headhunters have a wide variety of clients that are looking for good prospects, and now they will have an entire class of newly minted graduate students with great skills that match employers' needs."

Another key research finding is that students gravitate toward universities that are publicly ranked. Natoce notes that with the acquisition of NCU by National University System* – announced earlier this summer – NCU intends to be converted from for-profit to nonprofit at the end of 2018, making it eligible to be included in the national ranking provided by Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and others.

To address any questions about the overall NCU experience in the meantime, NCU has been working with Gallup on a study targeting NCU alumni. The research looks at how satisfied alumni are with their education, how they're using it in the workplace and how engaged these graduates are not only at work, but in their communities.

"The initial results have been phenomenal, and we'll release the final results soon on our website and in the next issue of Higher Degrees," says Natoce. "We can't wait to share what we've learned, so stay tuned for more news about this exciting research and the additional programs we'll be offering to make NCU better for all of our students."

* Acquisition is currently pending normal and customary regulatory and accrediting approvals.