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Consumer-Based Institutional Market Segmentation

Sixteen years ago, a research team led by Robert Zemsky developed a fundamentally new way to map the admissions and enrollment terrain for U.S. post-secondary education. The research and subsequent publications crystalized discussions of the structure of higher education such that the full range of differences among institutions and across market segments became a standard part of the discourse and analysis of post-secondary education in the U.S. Much has changed in the ensuing years: the rise of a successful for-profit sector; the offering of applied baccalaureate degrees by a growing number of community colleges; the growing importance of the employability of graduates with post-secondary degrees; the emergence of pricing policies and practices within post-secondary education that closely resemble the practices of the airline industry; and most recently, the decision by the federal government to develop a performance rating system that both promotes access, completions, and cost-containment, but also promises to take into full account the diversity of American post-secondary institutions. The cumulative impact of these changes has created a demand for a remapping of U.S. post-secondary education that can be used to a) help describe the current higher education institutional marketplace to the general public; b) inform students about the different types of institutions and to help inform their choice of institutions to attend; c) provide insight to policymakers in pursuit of a more responsive system of post-secondary education; d) equip analysts with a conceptual tool they can use when focusing on the performance of post-secondary institutions; and e) assist institutional leaders who understand that to be both mission-centered and market smart requires better serving the growing demand for programs that promote access, completions, and cost-containment.


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


Robert Zemsky, Penn GSE
Laura Perna, Penn GSE

Research Team 

Susan Shaman