Enrollments at colleges and universities, particularly those in the northeast, dropped by nearly 2 percent for fall 2016, continuing a trend that has seen a drop of approximately 6 percent over the last four years. The over-24 population, once hailed as a potential antidote to the declining population of high school students, experienced the sharpest decline, falling by nearly 4 percent according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The result? Significant numbers of colleges and universities didn’t “make” their freshman classes, graduate programs went undersubscribed, and for-profit institutions shuttered locations and slashed staffing.

Where Will the Dollars Come from?

Not surprisingly, many institutions are taking a hard look at programs that were once “sacred cows,” but that may now be considered financial drains due to under-enrollment. Others are looking at beefing up programs that show growing demand or specialized interest, such as new master’s programs.

Two areas also show promise. The first involves ways to cut the expense and time to completion for degree programs. More and more institutions are accepting personal learning assessments (PALS), credit-by-exam, and other forms of competency-based credit. Others are exploring ways to go from MOOC participation to college credit. Still others are looking at providing “micro-credentials” such as badges and certificates that have intrinsic value while offering the potential to stack toward a degree.

How Do We Know What Will Work?

Clearly, adding and subtracting new programs is fraught with financial risk and potential political fallout. But, as Bob Sevier has always said, “If you add something, you have to take something away.” How can you minimize the financial and political landmines?

Fortunately, in this world awash in data, we usually have all the information we need to make these difficult decisions. IPEDS can provide a foundation for some initial thinking, but proprietary institutional data, labor statistics, demographic trends, association data, competitive intelligence, and even Internet job postings can give us insights on what will and will not be a program that will help meet our strategic enrollment objectives.


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