This study explores Q methodology's effectiveness in understanding students' motivations and preferences in a distance doctoral program. Faced with the challenge of effectively revamping the program's website and marketing materials, a Q methodology study was conducted with current and past students. The primary focus was to capture their viewpoints on why they chose to pursue their doctoral program. The findings revealed a diverse range of motivations and preferences, which were then utilized to enhance the program's online presence and marketing strategies. This approach ensured that the program's offerings resonated with a broader spectrum of potential applicants rather than limited perspectives. The study highlights the importance of understanding distance learners' specific needs and motivations. It demonstrates the value of Q methodology as a tool for program development and marketing in the context of distance education. The insights gained are particularly beneficial for our program but suggest that similar studies could benefit other distance learning programs looking to tailor their offerings and marketing strategies to their unique student demographics. The current study serves as a model for using targeted, data-driven approaches to align educational offerings with student needs, thereby enhancing the effectiveness and appeal of distance learning programs.
Keywords: Q Methodology, Distance Program Leadership, Student Recruitment
Using Q Methodology for Distance Program Marketing and Recruitment
When exploring distance education programs, there is literature on exploring the need, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. There is literature supporting the need to align education with the workforce demand (Atwell et al., 2022; Fulmore et al., 2023), as well as several studies that cite the cost of creating and delivering online education (Caudill, 2022; Morris et al., 2020; Ortagus, 2020). However, one aspect that needs to be addressed in the literature widely within the implementation phase is the cost of marketing initiatives, especially what departments and programs are doing to increase their enrollments. Departments and programs fortunate enough to have a budget for marketing often lack marketing backgrounds, which are necessary to understand the importance of stakeholders' views. Future students, particularly in the context of distance doctoral programs, are the consumers of the materials created to encourage students to enroll in programs. There is significant investment of time and resources in revamping websites and marketing materials (Ortagus & Tanner, 2019). This investment, however, often overlooks a crucial aspect: understanding the diverse motivations of potential applicants. It is essential to grasp why candidates opt to apply and why they select to enroll and commit to completing a distance doctoral program.
In addressing our unique problem, we conducted a study utilizing Q methodology. Q methodology is a technique that provides researchers with insights into how participants perceive a specific subjective topic and enables researchers to observe unique viewpoints toward that topic. A research study describes Q methodology as a means to offer "a clear and structured way to elicit stakeholder views (termed 'operant subjectivities' in the Q literature) on an issue" (Zabala et al., 2018, p. 1186). The issue we aimed to address was, "Why did you select a specific executive format doctoral program?" We sought to better comprehend the perspectives of students who chose these programs for the development of a variety of marketing materials.
We conducted a Q methodology study with both current and past distance doctoral students. The primary question guiding the research was, "Why did you select your doctoral program?" This approach played a crucial role in capturing a wide array of viewpoints and reasons behind their decisions to enroll in such programs. These insights can then be seamlessly integrated into several marketing materials created at the department, program, and even faculty levels. Including brochures, print ads, social media posts, recruitment sessions, inquiry follow-ups (via email, text, and phone calls), and web page development.
Introduction to Q Methodology
Q methodology is an appropriate technique to develop an understanding of the potential students to gain an insight into their preferences and attitudes and has been used in other marketing research. Gabor (2013) stated that "For marketing, consumers' preferences, opinions, attitudes are subjective, and this is the reason for which a Q methodology outlines subjective structures or even subjectivity itself" p. 17. In the relationship to marketing, the preferences, opinions, and attitudes of consumers are inherently subjective, and that is aligned with the purpose of Q methodology. This approach serves as a tool that delineates and captures subjective structures. With this in mind, Q methodology is employed to understand and analyze the subjective aspects of students' preferences, opinions, and attitudes toward the selection of doctoral education. It will also help the researchers see where there is consensus among the participants and uncover the nuanced and individual perspectives that students hold, recognizing that these aspects are inherently shaped by personal viewpoints and experiences and can lead to the programs they select.
A theoretical framework that is valuable helps organize concepts and ideas and can provide clarity to a concept. Additionally, a theoretical framework will help address a challenge practitioners may face, such as how do we get more students to apply and enroll in online graduate education? The Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991) uses attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control to explain someone's intention to perform a behavior and is the immediate precursor to the behavior being performed. We were seeking information about online graduate students' attitudes toward applying to a graduate program. We seek to identify the students' selective norms, which in this specific case would be the individuals' perspectives of others that are important around them, such as friends, colleagues, family, and other professors. Additionally, we seek to examine their perceived behavioral control, meaning whether these students think they can be successful in selecting the program. The attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control are integrated within the items the students will be asked to sort. Additionally, since we were examining a highly practitioner-based graduate program, we used the lens of Human Capital Theory developed by Becker (1964) broadly, stating that the investment in skills, knowledge, abilities, and other attributes will contribute to an individual's productivity and ultimately their economic value (i.e., they will be able to receive career advancement and increased wages)."
Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behavior (1991)
Q methodology, developed by Stephenson (1935a, 1935b, 1936), was designed to explore subjectivity in empirical research, challenging the positivist assumptions prevalent in traditional correlational studies (Brown, 1996; Shemmings, 2006; Stephenson, 1953). Its primary objective is to delve into the reasons behind people's thought processes (Brown, 1993). Shemmings (2006) describes Q methodology as a user-friendly research tool that enhances qualitative analysis, such as identifying patterns in interviews, field notes, or observations, despite its complex mathematical underpinnings in factor analysis.
In Q methodology, researchers collect opinions from participants on subjective topics, grouping them based on the similarity of their viewpoints. This approach aims to discern if these opinions form a viewpoint that aids in understanding the subjectivity of individual perspectives on a matter (Brown, 1993). Q methodology's advantage is its ability to pinpoint both the commonalities and variances in subjective perceptions within a group, offering insights into diverse subjective viewpoints. Unlike traditional correlational research that focuses on correlations between items or constructs, Q methodology's factor analysis sheds light on individual similarities, preferences, and viewpoints regarding specific subjects (Brown, 1993). Q method stands out by correlating participants rather than test items, allowing researchers to explore the nuances among respondents' opinions. Smith (2001) notes that Q methodology does not require a large sample size; it involves fewer participants but exposes them to a broader range of test items.
Overview of Steps in Conducting a Q Methodology Study
Since the goal of the paper is not to teach the reader how to conduct a Q study but rather to give enough background to delve into how Q methodology was used in recruiting distance students, readers are encouraged to seek out other books and articles that give more detail in how to collect and analyze data for a Q study properly. In Q Methodology, the research process begins with defining the concourse, a comprehensive collection of statements about the study topic, encompassing a wide range of opinions and viewpoints. From this list of items, a subset of the list that comprehensively represents the view of the topic, known as the Q-set, is developed, consisting of a manageable number of statements for participants to sort, representative of the concourse's diversity. The participants, known in Q methodology literature as the P-set, are selected, focusing on capturing a range of viewpoints on a topic and not meant to generalize back to the population, as in survey research, but meant to generalize to the viewpoint being explored. For Q methodology, a large sample size of participants is not desired. However, you do want a comprehensive list of items. During Q-Sorting, participants arrange the Q-set statements based on their perspectives, typically along a continuum from "most agree" to "most disagree," reflecting their subjective viewpoints on a grid, as seen in Figure 2 below. The grid presents a somewhat normal distribution, forcing the ranking of high and low items. The data from the sorting are then analyzed using a Q-factor analysis to identify patterns and understand the different viewpoints or factors represented by the participants. The Q factor analysis factors by the individuals rather than by the items in the more traditional R factor analysis. The final stages involve interpreting these factors, which includes steps such as identifying items that have consensus across all the factors, the items that are uniquely scored in each facto, examining the highest and lowest rated statements, etc., to understand each viewpoint's nuances and then lastly naming the factors which are often referred to as the unique viewpoints. Then, researchers could go one step further and conduct focus groups with the individuals in each factor to develop a deeper understanding of the other perspectives.
Q Sorting Grid Example
Figure 2 above shows an example of a sorting grid where participants place their cards. Q Methodology employs a unique sorting grid where participants arrange statement cards based on their level of agreement or disagreement. This grid is typically structured with a range of values, often from negative to positive numbers, such as -5 to +5. Participants place the cards on the grid, with the leftmost columns representing strong disagreement (e.g., -5) and the rightmost columns indicating strong agreement (e.g., +5). Crucially, in this sorting process, the horizontal placement of the cards carries the primary significance. Cards in any column share the same value; for instance, all cards in the -5 column are equally representative of strong disagreement. The vertical placement within a column, however, does not imply any further ranking, so that within a single column, whether a card is placed at the top, middle, or bottom, it holds the same value as all other cards in that column.
Purpose of Using Q Methodology for Recruitment
The analysis of the Q sorts from the students, in this case for use in recruitment, provided a rich, multi-faceted understanding of their viewpoint toward selecting a program. Comprehensive insights were then strategically utilized to enhance the distance doctoral program's website, marketing materials, and information sessions that intentionally represented all viewpoints. The program could present a more inclusive and appealing narrative by incorporating these varied viewpoints. This approach ensured that the website and marketing materials resonated with the full spectrum of reasons that drive students to apply and attend, rather than focusing on a limited set of perspectives or even the set of perspectives that faculty thought were important to the students (that were not important to the students). Such a nuanced and inclusive representation is critical to attracting a broader and more diverse pool of applicants, aligning the program's offerings with the actual aspirations and needs of potential doctoral candidates.
Context of Using Findings for Program Marketing and Recruitment
The findings from the Q methodology study conducted for our specific distance doctoral program are invaluable, offering tailored insights that directly inform our marketing and recruitment strategies. These findings, derived from understanding the unique motivations of our current and past students, enable us to craft targeted messages and design program features that resonate deeply with our potential applicants. While the viewpoints are generalizable to why people selected the graduate program, it is essential to recognize that these insights are specific to our program's context and demographics. The motivations and preferences of students can vary significantly across different institutions and programs. The findings from this study, with appropriate sampling, could be used to develop survey research to make generalizations to larger populations of students to identify how many students have these unique perspectives in a population. Therefore, while our study's results are highly beneficial, they may only be universally applicable to some distance programs. The value is in using this process within your graduate program.
Conducting a similar Q methodology study would be a strategic move for other institutions offering distance learning. Such a study would allow them to capture their potential and current students' specific viewpoints and motivations. This tailored approach ensures that the marketing and recruitment efforts are based on data-driven insights, reflecting the program's unique aspects and strengths. By understanding the diverse reasons why students choose their specific program, these institutions can more effectively align their marketing materials and program offerings with their target audience's actual needs and aspirations. This customized approach is critical to attracting the right students and enhancing the overall effectiveness of their distance learning programs. Parallels can be drawn from other consumer perspective research that has used Q in areas. For example, in food and beverage research, understanding viewpoints toward taste, healthiness of food, and cultural factors; in technology product-related research, exploring views toward usability, features, and design; in entertainment research, discovering attitudes toward TV shows, music, genres, video games, and characters, and lastly in retail and shopping studies understanding the perspectives toward brands, factors impacting purchase decisions, as well as many other fields.
Naming the Three Factor Groups
Once data analysis was completed and the researchers could view the data around the factors that emerged from the factor analysis, the first step was to examine the items by the factors. We explored which items were sorted the same for each factor, which items were unique for each factor, and which were high and low for each factor. Based on this analysis, we created what in Q methodology is known as a crib sheet to give an understanding of each factor. Once that was completed, we started to name the factors.
The first group is the "Strategic Achievers," which reflects the group's focus on strategic, career-oriented education emphasizing practicality, affordability, and direct applicability to their professional lives. The second group is "Reputation Seekers," which captures the group's emphasis on the prestige and physical aspects of their educational experience, valuing face-to-face interaction, and the overall reputation of the institution and program. The third and final group is "Career Catalysts," which highlights the group's focus on programs that act as catalysts for their careers, emphasizing the practicality of the program content, its alignment with their career goals, and the importance of educational programs that are accessible and finishable.
Outcomes of Q Results
Factor Group 1: "Strategic Achievers"
Attracting distance students within the "Strategic Achievers" category requires administrators to consider several vital aspects carefully. The course delivery format is crucial, as indicated by the statement "Courses meet in the executive format," suggesting a preference for structured, professional, and possibly flexible course structures. Additionally, the perceived value of education is a significant draw, as echoed in sentiments like "Learning from the program will benefit me" and "My career will benefit from the degree." These statements underscore the importance of demonstrating how the program directly contributes to personal and professional growth.
The practicality of the program's duration, referenced in "The length of the program," is also a critical factor, implying that students value programs that are efficiently designed without compromising educational quality. As highlighted in "Tuition was reasonable," financial considerations cannot be overlooked, as they play a pivotal role in decision-making for potential students.
The program's structure, mainly how it integrates significant components like a dissertation, is also a point of attraction, as indicated by "Dissertation integrated throughout the program." Lastly, the ultimate goal of education in enhancing employment prospects is clearly articulated in "Degree will help obtain the next employment," emphasizing the need for programs to be aligned with career advancement opportunities. By addressing these aspects, administrators can effectively tailor their strategies to attract distance students seeking reasonable and convenient educational options.
Factor Group 2: "Reputation Seekers"
In the context of attracting distance student applications within the factor group of "Reputation Seekers," distance program administrators should focus on several key elements, as highlighted by this group's sorted statements. The "Location of the program" is a starting point, indicating that even in distance learning, the geographical and cultural context of the institution holds significance.
The "Program reputation" is a critical factor as it directly influences a student's decision, reflecting the perceived value and credibility of the program in the academic and professional world. The program's benefits, as expressed in "Learning from the program will benefit me" and "My career will benefit from the degree," emphasize the importance of showcasing how the program can enhance knowledge and career prospects. The statement "Degree will help obtain the next job" further underscores the need for the program to be seen as a stepping stone to better employment opportunities.
The overall "Institution has a strong academic reputation" is a testament to the importance of the institution's standing in the academic community, influencing the perceived quality and value of its distance programs. Lastly, "Courses are taught face-to-face" suggests a preference for programs that, despite being distance-based, offer opportunities for direct interaction, blending the benefits of traditional and online education. By addressing these factors, administrators can effectively position their distance programs as reputable and career-enhancing choices for prospective students.
Factor Group 3: "Career Catalysts"
In attracting distance student applications, focusing on the factor group of "Career Catalysts" is beneficial by examining the nuanced understanding of what prospective students are looking for in a program, as reflected in the statements sorted for this group. The notions that a "Degree will help obtain the next job" and "My career will benefit from the degree" emphasize the practical, career-oriented outcomes of the program. These aspects highlight the need for course content that is directly applicable and beneficial in the job market. The "Program reputation" also plays a crucial role, as it signifies the perceived quality and effectiveness of the program in delivering desirable outcomes. A unique aspect is brought to light with the statement, "Program focus is on the success of community college students," suggesting the importance of tailoring program content to specific student demographics or educational backgrounds.
The personal benefit of the program is underscored in "Learning from the program will benefit me," indicating that students are looking for programs that offer personal growth and knowledge enhancement. The specificity of course content is crucial, as seen in "Course content is what I wanted," which implies that programs must align with students' specific interests and needs.
The feasibility of completing the degree, as expressed in "This degree is one I can finish," points towards the need for manageable and realistic course structures. Lastly, "Obtaining employment" reiterates the ultimate goal of education for many students, which is to secure employment, further emphasizing the need for program content that is relevant, practical, and aligned with current job market demands. By considering these insights, administrators can effectively tailor their program content to attract and meet the needs of distance learners.
Statement Agreement Among all Three Groups
Statements that all participants rated high for why they selected the doctoral program among all factor groups are "learning in the program will benefit me," "my career will benefit from the degree," "obtaining employment as a result of getting the degree," and "the length of the program." Statements that all participants rated low for why they selected the doctoral program among all factor groups are "an internship is a required part of the curriculum," "undergraduate GPA is considered in the admission decision," and "the application fees are reasonable."
Application of Q Findings for Marketing and Recruitment
To ensure that marketing materials and recruitment efforts attract the broadest range of applicants, considering all three factor groups and their viewpoints on why they select a distance program is essential. To attract "Strategic Achievers," administrators should focus on tailored messaging emphasizing the executive format, practical program length, and reasonable tuition fees. Marketing materials and outreach should highlight the direct career benefits of the program, such as how the integrated dissertation can enhance professional skills. Showcasing alum success stories demonstrating tangible career advancement post-graduation can be particularly effective. Additionally, content should be developed to speak directly to how the program aids in obtaining employment, emphasizing the strategic aspects of the curriculum that align with career goals.
For "Reputation Seekers," the key is to promote the institution's academic strengths and the unique benefits of the program's location. Administrators should emphasize any opportunities for face-to-face learning within the distance program, such as on-campus sessions or seminars, which can be a significant draw. Utilizing testimonials from alums and faculty can effectively communicate the program's reputation and the real-world applicability of the education provided. Highlighting these aspects can appeal to students who value the prestige and physical aspects of their educational experience.
To appeal to "Career Catalysts," the focus should be on how the program can facilitate career advancement and aid in obtaining the next job. If the program has a track record of helping community college students succeed, these success stories should be prominently featured, emphasizing inclusivity and support. Stressing the alignment of course content with student career goals and its design for completion by working professionals or those with other commitments can be a strong selling point. This approach caters to students looking for practical, career-oriented education directly applicable to their professional aspirations.
The authors are co-leaders of the distance program, and we took our findings from the Q methodology study to our Department Chair and Dean, who supported revising the program website to ensure we had information included that would attract applicants from all of the viewpoints found. We then revised our marketing materials, narratives when talking to potential applicants, the content of information sessions, and social media posts around the viewpoints found in the Q study.
General Recruitment Strategies
In addition to these group-specific strategies, administrators should employ targeted digital marketing to reach potential students with messaging that would attract potential applicants from all three viewpoints. Intentional messaging can be applied to the program website, online recruitment sessions, and brochures. Engaging with potential students on social media and forums can provide insights into how the program aligns with their goals. Hosting virtual open days and webinars allows students to experience aspects of the program, meet faculty, and have their questions answered. Regularly gathering feedback from current students is crucial for continuous improvement and adaptation of the program to meet future students' needs better.
Recommendations for Administrators of Distance Programs
For leaders of other distance learning programs, the insights from our Q methodology study suggest several vital recommendations. First, conducting a tailored Q methodology study for a program can unveil specific student motivations and preferences, guiding program development and marketing strategies. Conduct focus groups to investigate why students are selecting the program. If a Q Methodology study has been conducted prior, focus groups can be arranged based on factor groups, as shown in Warfield's work (2021). Understanding and addressing the unique needs of students is crucial, as this informs the marketing and recruitment of potential applicants and can further enhance program offerings and support services. Tailoring marketing efforts based on these insights ensures more effective outreach. Additionally, fostering a sense of community and connection among distance learners is vital, possibly through online forums or virtual events. Establishing a continuous feedback loop with students and alums allows for ongoing program improvement. Finally, embracing diversity and inclusion, along with regular evaluation and adaptation of strategies, is essential to meet the evolving needs of distance learners. Implementing these recommendations can lead to a more engaging, effective, student-centered distance learning environment.
Recommendations for Future Research
Concerning the Q methodology findings when exploring students' viewpoints toward enrolling in a doctoral program, there is future research that could be useful to build upon the recruitment process. One suggestion is to explore how the identified viewpoints relate to program completion through both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Additionally, it could be valuable to see if different programs elicit different perspectives. Cross-disciplinary research could examine viewpoints to formulate marketing strategies that may have distinctions by programs and provide insight into similarities at the department, college, and university levels. Lastly, the findings from a Q methodology type of study could be applied to the Theory of Planned Behavior to conduct a quantitative study to examine how much variance these specific viewpoints can explain in a student's intention to enroll and enrollment behaviors.
In conclusion, the Q methodology study conducted within our distance doctoral program has provided profound insights into our students' diverse motivations and preferences in selecting to apply and attend. These findings have informed and enriched our program's development and marketing strategies and highlighted the importance of understanding the unique perspectives of distance learners. The study underscores the value of tailored research in shaping program offerings, enhancing student engagement, and refining recruitment efforts. A Q method approach is a compelling model for distance education leaders, demonstrating how targeted, data-driven strategies can effectively align program features with student needs, fostering a more inclusive, responsive, and thriving educational environment. The current study stands as an example of how using data can help understand and address the specific motivations of potential applicants in the ever-evolving landscape of distance education.
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