How to Know When a Program Has Run its Course

Becky Morehouse

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There are a few obvious ways to tell when an academic program at your institution isn’t performing well:

  • Enrollment is down
  • Prospective students aren’t searching for (or inquiring to) the program
  • Employability and average starting salaries for the program are down

But there are several less-obvious ways in which you can tell whether a program at your institution has run its course. One way to reveal these details is to perform an academic program assessment.

Conducting an assessment of your institution’s academic programs can be inherently difficult and seemingly expensive. What some might not realize is that hearing the results of an assessment can be just as hard.

The results, however, will help drive cost savings and free up resources that can be used elsewhere. The data can even answer important questions not only about academic programs but about your entire institution.

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4 Signs It’s Time to Reconsider an Academic Program

1. Product vs. Promotion

If data show that students are enrolling in the same type of program at other colleges in the country, or your region, but not at your institution, there might be specific issues to address:

  • Your academic program (the “product”) could be outdated.
  • Students who take campus tours might see facilities and resources as worn or insufficient.
  • Communication surrounding the program might be poor. How is the program branded, and how you attempting to reach prospective students?
  • You do not have, or have insufficiently communicated, tangible and meaningful outcomes of your graduates.

A program might be near and dear to certain stakeholders or to your school’s mission, but if it’s not performing well, an academic program assessment can help determine whether promotion is the issue or if the program is actually less relevant or on the wane.

 2. Brand vs. Commodity

Academic programs—particularly graduate programs (like MBAs)—typically fall into one of two camps: Either they are well-branded or they are a commodity.

Branded programs propel graduates into top-tier jobs. Also, branded programs attract:

  • Better students who are willing, and often able, to pay more
  • Highly qualified faculty who often graduate from well-branded programs
  • More affluent donors

Commodity programs, on the other hand, are known for lower cost and greater convenience. They offer less prestige and attract students and faculty who did not or could not attend (or work) at a branded program.

Both branded and commodity programs tout outcomes—the difference being the actual career-oriented outcomes. But difficulties arise when a commodity tries to position itself as a brand. In most cases. they ramp up their marketing spend because they want near term gains. However, if quality does not increase in a demonstrable and timely fashion, it is likely they will never achieve the marketplace presence they seek.

Are your academic programs brand or commodity buys? The marketplace is probably telling you—but program research can confirm and provide direction on becoming a brand buy.

3. Delivery

Online programs are becoming more professionally and socially accepted – and more expected from busy prospective students. Many reports, including this one from CSU Global, suggest employers care more about the name and accreditation of the school from which candidates obtained a degree than the method in which it was obtained.

That said, the way in which students can access a program might be holding the program back:

  • Could the program be rejuvenated if it was offered online or in hybrid format? In 2015, nearly 6 million students were enrolled in distance learning courses at degree-granting, postsecondary ed institutions – and more than 14% were exclusively enrolled in online courses.
  • Is it possible to shorten the time to degree? Shorter terms can be effective for certain courses as long as both faculty and staff are able to keep up with the flow of coursework.
  • Could class sizes be reduced for more faculty accessibility? A study published in Bioscience suggests that larger class sizes negatively impact women’s test scores – and potentially men’s non-test scores – in certain courses.

To determine the proper course for your existing program classes, consider conducting a research study – such as a moderated focus group or interview series. Include current students, faculty, and prospective students to gauge needs, wants, and possibilities regarding online programs from both sides of the discussion. With the data you collect, you can make an informed decision about the proper course of action.

4. Faculty Changes

Sometimes programs fail because a faculty member who formerly worked behind the scenes to recruit–or maybe even the professor who launched the program–is no longer at your institution (or championing the program).

Though name recognition is beneficial when starting a new program, it’s dangerous to build a program around a person. This is common at community colleges (where local recognition is a factor) and in graduate programs (where prolific or high-profile faculty stand out).

Starting Your Academic Program Assessment

In the world of higher education, there’s been a shift in accountability regarding academic program offerings. Students expect institutions to build and offer majors that lead to successful, efficient graduation. Institutions expect internal teams to generate enrollment year over year.

When conducting an academic program assessment, it’s critical to consider the data plus the political implications of changing or potentially ending a program. An equally important consideration is choosing a research partner who can remain objective when working with all your key stakeholders, from students to leadership to faculty and to marketing officers.

Our research team brings direction and focus to each analysis we conduct. For example, we create prioritized lists of which academic programs are viable and which will be most challenging to improve numbers. We support specific recommendations with data, actionable next steps, and resources to help you navigate potentially polarizing political situations and launch and promote the successful renditions of academic programs.

Ready to conduct an academic program assessment? Looking for vibrant ways to attract and connect with prospective students? My door is always open. Email me for a free consultation today.

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