Higher education looks a lot different today than it did several decades ago — students are far more diverse, classes are increasingly moving online and tuition is considerably higher. Even the areas of study themselves have changed. It’s unlikely that previous generations could have predicted there would ever be a need for data analytics or cannabis science programs one day.
We have every reason to believe that higher education institutions will need to continue adjusting their program portfolios going forward, possibly more frequently. But offering something new with the expectation that students will simply show up isn’t wise in today’s competitive environment. Launching a new program is a serious undertaking, one that should involve plenty of discussions and research.
“There’s never going to be one silver bullet of data that makes it clear something is going to work,” offers Amber Arnseth, associate director of marketing strategy at Collegis Education.
Arnseth has plenty of insights into what it takes for a college or university to successfully bring a new program to fruition. Her perspective helped inform the following considerations that you should evaluate when determining whether to offer something new to your students.
6 Questions to answer before launching a new program
Being thoughtful in determining how to proceed is essential. Plan to do plenty of research to gather the appropriate data, and then balance that information against the institutional mission and long-term goals.
1. Is there a market need for relevant careers?
The most basic criteria you need to consider when thinking about launching a new program is whether it aligns with in-demand positions in the job market. It makes little sense to offer a degree that isn’t relevant to the types of positions that will be available to graduates. Arnseth suggests doing some research by looking into relevant job postings and investigating whether the numbers are growing over time.
Of course, job growth isn’t the only important factor when identifying the market need for a particular program. Consider, for example, the fastest growing occupations as identified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some of the top jobs might be experiencing rapid expansion, but investigating growth alone can result in overlooking some positions with a considerable amount of demand.
“This is because the growth rate is calculated from a bigger base,” Arnseth explains. “You have to look at expansion and the total number together to really get a sense of what the opportunity could be for graduates.”
2. Are students interested in this type of program?
Another reason to consider career relevance for a program? Student demand. One survey of more than 86,000 learners shows that career-related motivations are the primary reason for pursuing a degree. That said, students value more than just the ability to make a good living.
“There’s evidence that personal growth is also of interest,” Arnseth says. “Students want to know how the subject they’re studying can help them personally fulfill their interests.”
How can you tap into the areas that inspire passion among students? Start by investigating conferral trends for the entire U.S. You can see how the number of degrees awarded for different areas of study has changed over time at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. It’s also a good idea to review your own (and your competitors’) institutional data. Taking a look at trends in similar programs can reveal whether interest in a particular field is growing or dwindling.
Lastly, consider what type of experience prospective students want in a given program. One way you can learn about these types of preferences is by conducting surveys. Perhaps you’ll find that students are seeking an online option that allows them to work independently, only occasionally interacting with peers and faculty members. Or they may be looking for something more traditional.
3. What competitive pressures exist and what opportunity is there to stand out?
Odds are good that if you’re investigating a new offering, other institutions have already tested that same program. It’s essential to research not just how many providers already have something similar, but also whether there’s any chance of successfully competing.
“The ideal scenario is when conferrals are growing while the number of providers is holding steady, or at least growing at a lesser rate,” Arnseth explains. “That’s a good sign there’s opportunity for new entrants into the market.”
Colleges and universities that are interested in launching a new program must also be acutely aware of how market consolidation factors into the picture. A handful of large providers that have increasingly moved online in recent years, sometimes called “mega-universities,” can present a challenge for most institutions as they gobble up an ever-larger share of the market.
“If the top 10 providers have more than 20 percent of the overall market share, that makes it difficult for a smaller institution to break through,” Arnseth offers.
On top of understanding the overall landscape for a particular program, schools also need to dig into the specific value competitors are able to convey. Perhaps it’s a low tuition rate. Or maybe it’s impressive faculty who have industry experience — as well as professional connections — that students will find valuable. Even testimonials that speak to the student experience can be attractive to prospects. After reviewing what competitors offer, consider the ways you can differentiate your program in ways that are compelling to students.
4. What is the vision for this program?
Every college and university has its own identity, and the programs it offers are often closely tied to that. Any new degree or certificate needs to make sense in the overall context of the institution. It should somehow fit within the overarching portfolio.
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re thinking of adding a graduate program. “A key consideration is whether you already have bachelor’s degrees with natural pathways into the master’s degree,” Arnseth offers. “If so, your institution likely already has some brand recognition in that area of study that you can build upon rather than starting from scratch.” It also means that you have a built-in group of prospective students for the advanced degree.
A new program needs to be more than a repeat of existing offerings, though. When a school launches something that’s too similar to existing programs that are largely meeting students’ needs, the risk for unhealthy cannibalization rises. This merely redistributes the current student population rather than actually growing enrollment.
But, when looking at the bottom line, also consider that eliminating certain programs can be a wise decision if they’ve become outdated.
“It’s important to always be reassessing your portfolio and not be afraid to let programs go if they’re really trending down,” Arnseth advises.
5. What will it take to successfully execute that vision?
While you shouldn’t grow too concerned with building out a complex execution model for a program you may never launch, it’s important to consider what it will take to bring that offering to life. Arnseth suggests thinking about all the inputs that have financial implications: Will you need to leverage new marketing tactics? Does your existing team have the expertise required to build these courses? Is it a lab-intensive offering that requires sophisticated equipment, software and materials?
Perhaps you’re thinking about bringing residential programs online for the first time. There are even more implications associated with launching distance offerings. Schools often find they need to invest in new technologies and faculty training — which can take planning and resourcing of their own.
6. What informed the idea to launch this program in the first place?
Clearly, it’s important to do extensive research before making a decision on whether to offer a new program. Just be careful about letting data overpower other relevant insights. It’s often better if the idea to launch a program is informed by where the market is headed in the future. You can’t glean that type of information from scouring growth trends or degree conferrals — it comes more from conversations with industry experts and local businesses.
“If a school has partnerships with companies, that’s a great way to get a pulse from their community on what employers actually need,” Arnseth says. Even polling alumni can be a good way to find out about emerging opportunities — or diminishing ones.
Make an informed decision
There will rarely be one clear sign that launching a new program is the right move. Instead, institutions should carefully consider each of the questions outlined above. Taking the time to think through the implications of each can help clarify your best decision.
It’s also important to remember that deciding whether to launch something new is just one element that goes into an overall portfolio strategy. Institutions should get in the habit of regularly reviewing their offerings to find ways to offset areas that may be struggling with core and high-growth programs. You can use our in-depth guide to gain further insight into how to achieve a well-rounded portfolio.