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Graduate Students and their Changing Expectations

At the risk of coming off as someone with early-onset curmudgeon-ness, back in my day graduate students went to graduate school only focused on their academic education—and liked it! (We also walked uphill in the snow both ways, or something.) The program I joined (originally with the intent of pursuing a PhD) was very academic-focused—a terminal master’s wasn’t a thing in that program, and all students, even master’s-enrolled students, were expected to develop the skills necessary to become high-quality researchers. The program thus intensely focused its resources on high-quality teaching, conference attendance, and various research opportunities. Scant few resources (time or money) were put towards the overall student experience in the program or even the college.

After working with various higher education institutions, I have found that student expectations are changing. I see students wanting more than just a good education; they want to connect with those around them. I’ve found alumni looking back and wishing they had been given more opportunities to build stronger relationships with those in their programs and even their programs’ broader communities. In many cases, these students and alumni are looking to the university, individual college, or even department or program to provide the opportunities to build those connections.

Why are they changing? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps the societal focus on the quintessential college (undergraduate) experience has residually affected the graduate experience, with students making the transition expecting something more akin to, albeit more mature than, their undergraduate experience. It’s also possible that, with the ever-expanding graduate offerings (certificates, short courses, terminal master’s, etc.), a greater number of students are entering programs that are less life-consuming than the classic PhD. Or perhaps graduate students are behaving more like a classic customer, reviewing their options and realizing that most graduate programs will offer the basic education they need, giving them the opportunity to make decisions on what else the program offers. Even more likely, it’s some combination of the three.

Universities must realize they cannot disregard these changing student expectations. Most universities are facing competition that is fiercer than ever. Many states and regions have a plethora of options for the future graduate student, and chances are that one or two of those options are breaking free from pervasive perceptions of the university as rigid, unchanging, and traditional—and are innovating their offerings, including the student experience.

Cousins with a Lot in Common: Culturals and Colleges—Part 2

In this blog post, we’re exploring how some of the trends in arts & culture also apply to higher education. Previously, we focused on how arts & culture and higher education are both facing a shifting paradigm that is forcing them to rethink what it means to be a cultural or a college or university. Today, we’re going to dive deeper into changes in how people interact with these organizations and what they expect of them.

User-defined experiences

Technology has allowed a high level of personalization across many domains, and as a result, there are higher expectations for being able to personalize products and experiences. One of the big findings from CultureTrack ’14 was that people were interested in self-curating their experiences when going to an arts & cultural event or space. Further, CultureTrack ’17 found that different groups of people were interested in using technology to enhance their arts & cultural experiences.

What might self-curation mean for higher education? Many colleges and universities have already realized that the experience of getting a degree can be as or even more important than the actual degree. Offering students ways to customize this experience is vital. This doesn’t necessarily mean changing the content of your offerings. It does call for engaging and relevant messaging that resonates with students with their own big future goals. If they don’t find what they are looking for, they’ll look to self-curate their education someplace else.

Additionally, convenient formats are increasingly important for the higher education consumer. Instead of declaring online courses and degrees as inferior, colleges and universities should be figuring out how to make the quality of these options as high as the on-campus options because for some students, these may be their only options.

Another major finding from CultureTrack ’14 was that cultural consumers were “promiscuous” when it came to experiencing arts & culture—they wanted to experience a little bit of everything. And there is a similar pattern in education. As STEM transforms into STEAM and then STREAM (science, technology, reading, engineering, art, and math), we can see how the focus on a well-rounded education has become popular again. Given the growth of the knowledge economy, students are interested in experiencing a broader array of education opportunities, even after they have a degree, for both personal growth and career growth.

Wanted: Civic leaders

CultureTrack ’17 also examined people’s philanthropy for arts & culture. Most of the major reasons for giving or not giving to arts & cultural organization involved social impact. That is, cultural consumers are more interested now in the type of impact that arts & cultural organizations are having on society and their community. They are expecting arts & cultural organizations to act as civic leaders.

This pattern seems to hold true for institutions beyond cultural ones, such as colleges and universities. Both donors and students are expecting colleges and universities to be interested in having a social impact. Academia rewards faculty for scholarship and knowledge creation, but colleges and universities also need to encourage faculty to figure out ways to apply that knowledge in the community in an impactful way.

One of the other outcomes of recent technological advances is that people spend less time engaging with other people in real life. However, people crave contact, connection and a civic commons. Plus, we know that loneliness is bad for our health. Community institutions, like culturals and universities or colleges, are some of the remaining spaces for engaging with other people. Civic leaders can provide opportunities for people in the community to engage with other people.

Where to next?

While change is often stressful, it is exciting to see the ways that higher education and arts & culture are evolving to meet the needs and expectations of the future. Some colleges and universities and some culturals have been adapting to meet the needs of their students, patrons, and community. For example, the San Francisco Opera has been using pop-up events to reach new patrons. Importantly, the opera is using these pop-up events to test an idea quickly, learn from the outcome, and move forward. Similarly, Georgetown University is testing different ways of delivering higher education. In both these examples, the organizations are giving themselves permission and space to experiment.

If you are a higher education institution or a cultural who needs to adapt to this shifting paradigm, there are a couple of things to consider:

  • What parts of your identity as an organization are critical (like your mission and vision) and what parts could be adapted? Where is there room to experiment?
  • How can your organization bring people together? How can you have a greater impact on the community? How are you sharing the story of your impact?
  • How are you addressing issues of access and inclusion?
  • Can people create an experience at your organization that aligns with their needs and interests?

Cousins with a Lot in Common: Culturals and Colleges—Part 1

One of the benefits of our work at Corona Insights is the sheer variety, both in our clients and their respective industries. This breadth allows us to cross-pollinate ideas across seemingly disparate fields and share industry-spanning trends with our clients.

Our work in arts & culture and higher education is long-standing. That long arc of time, combined with several curious minds, has led us to a few insights.

Arts & culture and higher education have more in common than one might think. Both industries are tradition-bound, often collections-based and led by knowledge experts. Tenure matters in these fields; as do professional credentials. Both are slow to change and find it difficult to anticipate emerging consumer demands.

Each is also experiencing seismic shifts as consumers, most notably Millennials (and now Gen Z too), are making vastly different choices than previous generations. Plus, technology is redefining how we engage with just about everything.  Take food for example. As Applebee’s market share declines, the demand for freshly prepared grab-and-go snacks increases. Did you hear that we aren’t really eating meals anymore? Welcome to the snacking era. No wonder napkin use is down too.

In this blog post and a follow up one, we will explore and apply some of the trends in arts & culture to higher education.

Shifting paradigms

In this new context, culturals are having to rethink just about everything. From engaging younger and more diverse audiences to leveraging technology to augment the visitor experience, museums and arts groups are seeking relevance in news ways.

As LaPlaca Cohen revealed in their most recent national study of cultural consumers, CultureTrack ’17, things have changed dramatically since they conducted their first study in 2001.

“For today’s audiences, the definition of culture has democratized, nearly to the point of extinction. It’s no longer about high versus low or culture versus entertainment; it’s about relevance or irrelevance. Activities that have traditionally been considered culture and those that haven’t are now on a level playing field. With the traditional notion of “culture” no longer being a distinguishing factor, it is up to cultural organizations to reassert culture’s purpose in an increasingly complex world, by powerfully articulating and delivering on their essential impact.”

With seemingly endless ways to spend one’s leisure time and endless modes of communicating and consuming content, the definition of “cultural” has expanded to include activities such as outings in city parks and watching Hulu. Curators and arts critics are finding that their roles are changing as consumers self-curate their experiences. They want to consume collaboratively and share with their friends (as revealed in CultureTrack ’14).

So too is the definition of higher education changing, much to the chagrin of academics. Long gone are the days when professors were sages on stages and students spent four years sitting at a series of desks, turning in assignments on time, and deciding whether or not to live on campus (and go to the occasional kegger, let’s be honest).

Consumers are demanding choice in higher education, and they are demanding evidence that the education they purchase will lead to their desired outcomes. A college degree is a capital investment after all. Higher education, like arts & culture, is being scrutinized more closely for its ROI – return on investment. Increasing student loan debt, questions about the value-add of a college degree, and high-growth jobs that don’t require a post-secondary education are making the consumer stand up and say, “why?”. They are also voting with their feet when it comes to demand for online offerings (which offer the same convenience that online streaming of entertainment does) and an understanding of the total cost of ownership (i.e., what’s my degree really going to cost once you figure in housing?). Employers are seeking alternatives as well – alternative credentials, badges, and certificates that prove someone has what it takes to be successful in the job today.

Higher education’s role in society is also being questioned. As democratization permeates industries, one can’t help but ask, “If it isn’t for everyone is it worth keeping?”. If a college degree is only for the well-to-do or those who live in larger cities as opposed to small, rural towns, is it accessible enough? Is it inclusive?

Today, power is in the hands of the consumer. And consumer behavior is changing industries. Restaurants, shopping malls, content consumption, and transportation are all being redefined for relevance. Higher education and arts & culture are no exception.

Next Time

In part two of this blog, we’ll explore further the similarities between higher education and arts & culture in terms of how people interact with these organizations and what they expect of them.


The State of Higher Education: A Corona Insights Blog Series

In 2011, Pew Research Center published a comprehensive report entitled “Is College Worth It?” that shed light on the primary issues within higher education, including cost and value; monetary payoff; views on the mission of colleges; student loans; and more. Despite the daunting title of the report, the survey results suggested that, overall, Americans in 2011 understood the benefits of higher education, as “an overwhelming majority of college graduates—86%—say that college has been a good investment for them personally” and that those with a college degree earn roughly $20,000 more a year than those without a college degree.

In 2014, Corona Insights considered the same question posed in the 2011 Pew report and similarly concluded, “Yes, that college degree is still worth the cost of attendance.”

Gelling with the 2011 Pew report findings, the table included here shows a large gap in 2012 median wages between Colorado adults aged 30-34 with at least a bachelor’s degree and those without. As noted by Corona CEO Kevin Raines, the value of a college degree lies in the long-term financial payoff: “As a general rule, unless you plan to retire at 30, it’s pretty clear in this simple analysis that there’s a positive long-term financial payoff to pursuing higher education.”

Now, in 2018, higher education still contends with this question about the value of a college degree as well as a new slate of issues, including stout public skepticism, ballooning student loan debt, and the growing gap in access for low-income and minority students. In light of these issues (and others), the state of higher education in America is as fuzzy as ever.

A simple Google search of “higher education in America” demonstrates the complexity and the breadth of the issues facing colleges and universities today, as the search yields article titles ranging from “Higher Education Is Bad for America—Here’s How” to “Americans love higher education, just not their universities.” At a time when 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe higher education has a negative effect on America, the average cost of college in America is higher than anywhere else, and student loan debt nears $1.5 trillion, higher education, as an industry, needs to be cognizant of these complicated issues as well as intentional and imaginative in responding to them.

This quarter, the Corona Insights team takes a deeper dive into the main issues, trends, and opportunities lying before the industry of higher education in America. While higher education is a vastly complex system that cannot be fully analyzed in a blog series over the course of a few months, we hope to illuminate what the most recent studies, pertinent data points, and established experts can tell us about the state of higher education in America and how institutions are rising (or not) to the challenge.

Over the next few months, we’ll examine some of the most intricate and significant topics relevant to the state of higher education in 2018, such as public perceptions of higher education in America; the economics of higher education; the use of data to better serve today’s students; and the need for institutions of higher education to strategically differentiate from other institutions. Stay tuned to the Radiance blog as we tangle with some of the toughest problems facing the world of higher education today.

Creative Ways to Get Useful and Actionable Data for a Small Budget Needs Assessment

The American Evaluation Association invited their Topic Interest Groups (TIGs) to each take over their blog for a week in 2018. As part of the Needs Assessment TIG, Beth and Kate were invited to write one of the blogs with tips for doing needs assessments. With help from Matt Bruce, they wrote about how to do a needs assessment with a small budget. This post originally appeared on the AEA365 blog on March 21, 2018.

Hello! We’re Beth Mulligan and Kate Darwent from Corona Insights, a firm that provides research, evaluation, and strategic consulting services for government and nonprofit organizations.  We are often contacted by clients who have both very limited resources and a very strong desire to understand and address the needs in their community (whether “their community” is low-income residents of a city or county, library patrons, Latinx children in their school district, or some other group). Here are some suggestions for creative ways to get useful and actionable data for a small budget needs assessment.

  1. Use secondary data sources.  Start by searching for and reviewing relevant existing reports or datasets.  This may include reports from state agencies or national organizations that reveal insights about your target population, relevant Census data, or previous studies conducted by your client.  Making sure you know what is already known before collecting new data is the first step to managing limited resources.
  2. Use your client’s resources creatively.  Although the client may have a limited budget to pay for outside help, they may be able to offer their own time and effort, or may have volunteer staff available, or may have other budgets for materials like printing or mailing that they can use.  Help the client to determine where they most need your help and expertise, and where they can take on tasks themselves with your guidance.
  3. Remember that perfect is the enemy of good.  Although we may prefer to conduct 15 key person interviews, would conducting two be better than zero?  Oftentimes, yes.  And though we would like to survey everyone in the community by mail, and send no fewer than two follow-up mailings, is the information we will get from a single mailing better than nothing? Would the information from an open-link survey or an intercept survey at some community events be better than nothing?  The judgment about whether to use what we may think of as lower-quality methods depends on the trade-offs in each situation.  In a situation where the population is relatively small and engaged, it may be reasonable to post an open-link survey on social media.  In other situations, it may be acceptable to do two interviews with service recipients rather than a representative sample survey.  No one solution will fit all situations, but be open to various non-optimal solutions that find the best compromise between quality and cost, especially when you have difficult-to-reach target populations.

Sometimes budget restrictions shrink or disappear when the client understands the value of more expensive options.  Don’t hesitate to communicate the benefits of things like greater coverage, higher response rates, participation from more stakeholder groups, expertise in data analysis, mapping, and so on.  Hopefully you won’t have to make tradeoffs because of financial resources, but in case you do, we hope these suggestions help you maximize the resources available to help a client serve their community better.

Rad Resource:

Conducting Quality Impact Evaluations Under Budget, Time and Data Constraints.  Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Needs Assessment (NA) TIG Week with our colleagues in the Needs Assessment Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on theaea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

Membership Association Recap

Over the past three months we’ve been focusing on our blog writing on membership associations.

Here is a recap of our recent posts:

Corona Insights has long worked with membership associations from research to consulting and we hope these insights prove useful to your organization.

To stay on top of our recent blog posts, be sure to sign up for our quarterly newsletter, The Corona Observer.

And stay tuned for a new topic in the second quarter!

The Importance and Scale of Membership Associations

We’ve talked a lot this quarter about membership associations and how leaders of such organizations can better understand members’ needs.  To close out our discussion on this topic, we wanted to take a step back and look at just why membership associations matter in the first place.

The Importance

Membership associations come in all shapes and sizes, but the defining characteristic is simply uniting a group of people facing similar issues in a way that allows them to collaborate and focus their efforts to move the needle in their respective industries or areas of interest.  Our work at Corona has ranged from projects with small groups of individuals having a niche job role who simply need to find other people to bounce ideas off of, to large international associations of academic researchers who use their association to better coordinate their efforts around researching a key health issue.

No matter the size, the members of these organizations simply wouldn’t be as effective at meeting their personal or professional goals if their association did not exist.  Their associations allow them to network and meet others in their profession, learn about key topics that will influence their lives, and jointly focus on topics that are important to them.  Without associations, none of this would be possible, and our world would suffer from less productivity due to decreased coordination.

The Scale

At Corona, we have the enviable position of being able to get to know dozens of organizations intimately every year, and perhaps nothing has been more surprising than learning about the number of membership associations that exist.  According to the American Society of Association Executives, there are more than 1.9 million U.S.-based associations and, collectively, they generated $142 billion in revenues in 2013.

Corona recently worked with the Colorado Society of Association Executives and determined that the association’s members collectively had nearly a quarter billion in annual expenditures, making them a major player in the Colorado economy (and that doesn’t even include all of the associations in the state).

The Point

It’s easy to take for granted the role that membership associations play in keeping our world moving forward.  Without associations, many industries would be like a ship without a rudder, drifting in a dozen different directions without a cohesive sense of purpose.  So if you’re a leader of a membership association, thank you for the impact that you make not only on your members, but on the entire industry you serve.  We hope that this series has given you some things to think about and tools to use to better serve your members in the future.  If you’re a member of an association, don’t take your association for granted.  If there are areas you think can be improved, be sure to pitch in and help out for the greater good.  And if we, at Corona, can ever be of assistance to make sure that your organization has a solid strategy and foundation of information on which to help move your organization forward, we’d love to help support the very important work that associations provide.

Assessing Your Organization’s Competition

Just like businesses, many associations compete in a marketplace of demand and supply.  There is a demand for benefits and services from current and potential members. Often, there is a supply of benefits and services from more than one provider (i.e., more than one association).  In some industries, we have seen more than six different professional associations competing in the same marketplace.  This could be a sign of a saturated market.

In a saturated market, its important to understand how your association stacks up to your competition.  This knowledge will help you identify your association’s strengths and weaknesses relative to other associations, and it can help you identify your sweet-spot services and your target market.

One way to assess your competition is to ask people in your market what association they think is best at providing a variety of services and benefits. For example, you could ask a question such as:

For each service/benefit below, mark the association that is best at providing it.

Don’t forget to give people a chance to say they “don’t know” or that they are “unsure.”

When this type of survey question is paired with a question about the importance of each benefit, the results can help you hone in on what important benefits your association provides better or worse than your competition.  A benefit that is deemed important by many people in your market, but that no association is clearly known for being best at providing, suggests an opportunity for your association to fill an unmet or under-met demand.

Considerations for researching your members

Corona takes many items into consideration when designing a research plan for our clients. In short, market research includes asking the right people, the right questions, in the right manner, and then conducting the right analyses. Here are a few of the considerations when conducting research with your membership.

Research mode

  • What type of contact information do you have for members? And how are they used to interacting with you? For many, this will be email, but it may also include phone, mail, or even in-person research at conferences. The goal is to select the mode(s) that will reach all, or at least the greatest number of members possible.
  • Quant vs. qual? Are you trying to measure opinions (quant) or do exploratory research or dig deeper into an issue (qual)?
  • Do you need multiple touch points? Announcements, invites, and reminders? Online with telephone or mail reminders?


  • What are your goals and expected outcomes? It’s often easy to jump into start writing survey questions or qualitative prompts. It’s often harder to think of bigger picture goals and how you will use the information you gain. Start with your goals to ensure the research will turn out successful.


  • Sample all or some? For large organizations, you may not need to survey every member to have valid, representative results. You may want to give everyone an opportunity to respond or you may decide to only survey a random selection to minimize the number of members contacted.
  • Can you append data for actual behavior? While you can always ask about their membership behavior (e.g., length of membership, conferences attended, etc.), if you have that information already, you can just append it to their results. This will yield more accurate results and require fewer questions asked to respondents.


  • How often should you conduct member research? Annual research makes the most sense for some organizations, while others may go years between efforts. There is no right answer, but in general, regular intervals make the most sense, and you will want to take into consideration the rate of change within the organization. If membership turns over regularly, or you’re in a fast-paced industry, more frequent research may be needed to keep the pulse of members.


  • Do we offer an incentive? Generally speaking, an incentive will increase response rate. Furthermore, through our own testing, Corona has seen that the make-up of respondents includes a broader mix of people when an incentive is offered. Incentives serve to both encourage response and recognize their time and effort in completing the survey.
  • What type of incentive? While there are many options, the incentive should have broad appeal as to not skew the results by being over appealing to one segment and not at all appealing to another. Prize drawings, small token gift cards, and/or additional member benefits are all common options.

What other questions or concerns have you had about conducting research with your members?

Preferred membership benefits and how they can change over time

So far in this series on membership organizations, we’ve discussed communications, segmenting, and the importance of personal benefits. Here we combine the latter two and look at how perceptions of benefits change over time. The reasons someone may join fresh out of college or at the start of a new career is different than someone who continues to be a member as they near retirement.

This, in fact, is another benefit of segmenting your membership, both in practice and in evaluating results from any membership research. By looking at how results vary by age, time in the industry or their career, and/or time as a member, you can tailor services and messaging to each group.

For example, we’ve seen such differences as:

  • Resource access
  • Skill development
  • Career development
  • Broader industry efforts

Even if your organization is more homogeneous, such as a young professionals group, understanding where they are at will help you ensure the organization remains relevant to them.

What other factors have you seen vary by member tenure?