Terri Nierengarten, senior director of product and strategic partnerships at Collegis Education, is one of the experts Collegis and its partners turn to for help in navigating the academic programming landscape.

Not only does Nierengarten hold an MBA in Strategy and Marketing from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, she is well versed in mining, and analyzing, data from IPEDS, Burning Glass, and other government tracking databases to evaluate market growth opportunities.

In response to August headlines in industry trades such as The Hechinger Report’s, “Panicked Universities in Search of Students Are Adding Thousands of New Majors” we sat down with Nierengarten to consider the state of programming in higher ed and why a “yes, and …” approach is still a good plan for most institutions.

CE: College programming has a tradition of being inspired by an “If you build it, they will come” philosophy. Is this still sustainable? What has changed?

Nierengarten: “We’ve seen that although there’s demand for both traditional liberal arts programs and emerging, hyper growth programs, the old philosophy that if you simply create a new program the students will appear no longer works.

“It’s no longer enough to have a hot idea, or to jump on a high volume program such as an MBA or RN-to-BSN. The cost of failure is beginning to wear down institutions in a new way. They can only take so many false starts – it’s costly, distracting, and discouraging.  What’s changed is that enrollment is no longer guaranteed, even for popular programs. You are no longer just competing with the other schools in your region, but, with nationally recognized institutions that are backed by dynamic programs and marketing budgets.  In order to adjust, colleges must look at market dynamics with a critical eye.”

CE: What about programs that colleges offer out of a sense of mission or ideology. Are they helping or hurting enrollment?

Nierengarten: “Colleges can certainly take a balanced growth approach. They can leverage the strengths of the programs they value, even if they aren’t efficient enrollment drivers. But they should also look beyond their academic goals and integrate market demand with academic direction. Think “yes, and …” – “Yes” to the programs they value, AND yes to emerging programs that do have the potential to generate revenue.

“Don’t abandon areas of strength, but also don’t ignore areas of opportunity. If you’re seeing massive declines in market or enrollment, be cautious about how you invest there. Keep in mind that if there is no evidence of market demand, the ability to grow is limited.

“Do enough to nurture and honor your heritage and mission, but also continue to look for growth.”

CE: What are the initial things a programming team should do when they want to explore the idea of adding a new program?

Nierengarten: “First, they should evaluate whether the program is truly a fit for the institution. If the program ties in well with the institution’s strengths, that’s a good sign. But if it feels forced, or as if the school would need to build the full program from the ground up, the costs could be hard to recoup.   That isn’t to say you should never expand into high investment program areas, but, that you should carefully evaluate the market data that suggests the program will be successful.

“On that note, the second thing they should do is look for evidence of market demand. This requires going beyond the surface. They should evaluate historical conferral trends in their region combined with more timely measures like Google search trends and job postings. While Google search trends can reveal insights about prospective student interests, when those are combined with workforce needs, a clear picture of today’s market dynamics emerges. We are increasingly seeing that employers not only want workers who have strong critical thinking and communication skills, but that they want these skills to be combined with others.  Often, the ideal mix of skills is not found in any one program but fragmented across multiple programs.

“A new blend of fundamentals is emerging that may look like a combination of liberal arts foundations, tech skills and analytics, for example. It may be that, in liberal arts courses, assignments could begin to integrate tech and analytics skills so as to create a multi-layered learning experience that meets the students’ needs in both the short and long term.

“Third, they should examine how the program might be differentiated from its competition. Will you attract students based on a uniquely available program set or perhaps “celebrity” instructors? Career connections or projects with employers? Or online modalities that offer time-constrained students the flexibility they seek??

CE: I didn’t hear the cost of tuition in your list of differentiators. More and more colleges are trying to compete on reduced or low tuition. What should colleges know about that?

Nierengarten: “There has been a lot of focus on tuition in recent years driving down the floor of what it means to be a low-cost degree, but schools should look at how they could differentiate through learning experience, what they are teaching, and how it is part of the next wave.  And, yes, competitive tuition is a must in our current climate but it isn’t everything.

“Most institutions can only bear tuition to go so low and schools should be mindful that students are not making a minor purchase when it comes to education. They are buying knowledge for life, and most will require years to pay it off.  Help prospective students understand the specific benefits to enrolling in your program vs a cheaper alternative.

“Instead, focus on value and the true merits of enrolling in your program. Basic market positioning or non-specific claims are unlikely to be enough to justify a price premium. If you lack hard benefits and opt to compete on tuition, know you’ll be competing with many other cheap programs. The cheapest isn’t always the best.

“Colleges would do better to give students tangible reasons for why the learning and experience at their school is worth paying more for.”

CE: What are some features that can help a program succeed in today’s climate?

Nierengarten: “There are some simple things colleges can do to enhance almost any program and I always recommend they begin by thinking through how they can help students shine. Many college graduates had the experience of focusing on completion but, when they got out of school, perhaps they didn’t understand how to articulate how their education could transfer to qualifying for a job, or contributing to their community.

“Institutions need to consider questions like “What do you want your students to say about what they learned in your programs when they’re interviewing for jobs?  How will graduates demonstrate that expertise?”

“Yes, we’ve all heard that colleges want to prepare students for not just their first job, but for life. But preparing students for life should also include helping them articulate what they’ve learned so that it gives them real currency in the world.

“What can you do to help students understand how what they are learning will translate beyond college? Consider the difference it would make to students if they were so transformed by their learning experience that they were prepared to say, “What I learned was a, b and c and that should matter to you or this company because…and, here is an example of a real company problem that I worked on as a student.”

“If the student had an internship, would they be able to express what they learned and why it mattered? What colleges sometimes overlook is that when their graduates shine, it reflects well upon the college. That encourages future enrollment, as well as future alumni giving. It’s a win for all.

“Ultimately, it’s often less about what degree the student has, whether in the humanities, math or sciences, but more on how you help students carry their learnings over to employment opportunities and post-graduate life. Their successes will become the stories that your marketing and admissions teams will tell over and over again.”