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Post-Pandemic Advice for Universities & Colleges

An Opportunity Map can help you retain students and grow enrollment.

As Bob Dylan said, “Times they are a changin’” – and how! The last three months have seen a seismic shift in post-secondary education unlike any in modern history. As schools are forced to drastically change how they serve students, there has been a growing hope that the world will get back to “normal.”  This is especially true for Post-Secondary Institutions.

Unfortunately, such hope is misguided – not because things won’t get better, but because COVID-19 has abruptly created a new world where what was “normal” will no longer work.

We can already see this in a host of knotty problems: declining enrollments, difficulty migrating to online learning, ensuring safety of students and staff, attracting foreign students, justifying tuition when discounts are being sought – just to name a few. The institutions that survive in the post-pandemic world will be those that can quickly identify and adapt to the changing needs of their students.

In this post, we’ll lay out a plan for understanding how your students’ needs are changing in the “new normal” and how you can make sure your institution thrives in it.

What do your students really want?

Pandemic or not, institutions that grow and thrive have a clear answer to the following:

“What problems do we solve?”

Most colleges and universities believe they have studied this from every possible angle: the need for a high-quality, affordable education, a desire for a great “college experience,” etc.

However, in working with universities and with clients in a variety of fields, we’ve found that while students or customers are eager to purchase a service or product, the deeper reasons behind that purchase are often more enigmatic, often with deep social and psychological foundations that are difficult to tease out.

Moreover, the set of products or services that might fill these needs is often MUCH broader than a typical “competitor analysis” might suggest. In the case of undergraduate institutions, is your competition another university, or is it an entirely different life path?

Without a clear understanding of the problems they solve, universities risk investing in new facilities, services, and initiatives that are destined to fail, especially during times of momentous change. However, those that are attuned to the needs of their students are able to successfully innovate and sustain growth.

Functions vs Feelings

How to expand our understanding of “needs” is often easier to see if we step outside our own field. So let’s leave aside universities for a moment and consider, as an example, a client of ours that sells recreational vehicles.

While many in the recreational vehicle industry focus on developing best-in-class vehicles from a functional perspective, our client had an intuition that customers were “buying” much more than just the vehicle. In other words, their needs went beyond what they could see and touch.

We were able to start with this intuition and help the client elucidate and confirm it, using an approach based on Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done theory.

While customers were certainly buying vehicles for their functionalities and performance, those were considered “table stakes.” What actually differentiated competitors in this space was their ability to solve a deeper, less visible problem: the need for the rider and their family to feel safe. By identifying the deeper problem that they were solving – or could be solving – they were able to create products and services that centered around what customers were actually buying on a deeper level, thus getting a leg up on their competition and growing their customer base.

In the “new normal,” one thing is certain: your students’ needs are indeed a changin’. The question is, will you be able to identify those needs and adapt to meet them? In the next section we’ll show you how you can do that.

How to identify the real needs of your students:

Step 1: Start with the journey

The first step to understanding why students will choose an institution in the “new normal” is to understand the journey they take to becoming a student. While this journey will be slightly different for every student, they will share some things in common: an awareness that they need a post-secondary education, a period of research and consideration, deciding where to apply, and, finally, choosing the school they will attend.  

Next, you’ll identify needs through a series of interviews. Specifically, ask people who have gone or are going through the “journey” to describe their experiences at each stage:

  1. What are the person’s needs/goals?
  2. What are their main questions/concerns?
  3. What emotions are they experiencing?
  4. What courses of action are they considering?

Step 2: Move from the forest to the trees

Using the interviews as a guide, develop a comprehensive list of needs. These needs should fall into two main categories: hard needs (i.e. physical needs of students, tangible outcomes of an education, etc.) and soft needs (i.e. how does the student hope to feel while on campus/taking a class/after graduation/etc.?).

Step 3: Identify priorities for innovation and improvement

Next, identify the needs your institution should prioritize with some ‘hard’ numbers. This can be done with a survey of either current students or recent graduates from your institution and institutions like yours. The survey should focus on two things:

  1. The importance of each need
  2. Students’ satisfaction with how each need is/was being met

Use the survey results to create an “opportunity map” (see below). An opportunity map graphs each need based on its importance and students’ level of satisfaction.

Opportunity Map for Post-secondary institutions

The needs that fall into the upper-right portion of the graph (high-satisfaction/high-importance) represent “table stakes” (i.e. needs that must be met). These are the needs that absolutely must be met to attract and retain students in a competitive environment.

The needs in the lower-right and lower-left sections represent low and secondary priorities, respectively. Regardless of satisfaction levels, these needs are of low-importance – so they’re nice-to-have but not need-to-have.

Where your organization has an opportunity to outpace your competition is in the top-left part of the graph. These are needs that are very important to students but that are currently not being met well – by anybody! Honing in on these needs and focusing your organization’s efforts on meeting them will ensure that you thrive in the “new normal.”


The world is profoundly different today than it was three months ago – and much of it will remain different. The same is true your students’ needs. Whoever identifies those needs and adapts to meet them first will be the forerunners in the field. Are you prepared to be ahead of the curve or will you be left catching up?

If you need help identifying your students’ needs, please reach out to us below.


Dr. Robert Vagi, Ph.D. and Phase 5 have helped universities combat declining enrollment and increased competition. Our groundbreaking work in identifying and prioritizing deep needs offers promise to higher education in these challenging times.



Written by Robert Vagi

Robert Vagi, PhD, is Phase 5’s lead data scientist. Drawing from his background in both quantitative research and education, Rob is passionate about helping clients use data to tackle their most challenging business problems. Throughout his career, he has helped clients in both private and public sectors make the most of their data. This work has received both local and national media attention. Rob is based in Minneapolis, MN.