At colleges and universities, having well-established processes is essential for everything from hiring staff to distributing semester-end grades. The downside is it can be difficult to change with the times once a clearly outlined series of steps is in place. This is especially true for conducting program portfolio reviews.
Not long ago, most schools reviewed academic offerings just once every five to seven years. But it’s no longer sufficient to scrutinize your portfolio so infrequently in such a competitive and evolving market. Just consider how degrees that once seemed impractical or obscure a number of years ago, such as nutrition science, are now standard.
“Reviewing programs every one to two years is a good benchmark,” suggests Amber Arnseth, associate director of marketing strategy at Collegis Education. “Sometimes schools lack the resources do to it that frequently, but if you wait too long, programs can become outdated pretty quickly.”
Institutions should be prepared to not only review their programs every few years, but also recognize that some offerings may no longer be viable. Eliminating any academic program is an enormous and complex decision that requires thorough analysis and numerous discussions. If you’re questioning whether it’s time to eliminate one or more offerings, make sure to fully think through the implications.
4 Factors that suggest it’s time to eliminate a program
While there’s never going to be one clear sign that it’s time to cut a program, consider these indictors in conjunction with one another. Offerings that struggle across multiple areas may warrant a more in-depth analysis to determine whether they still make sense for your institution.
1. Enrollment is inadequate
There are a few ways to consider subpar enrollment, but the first has to do with falling short of objectives. When this happens, Arnseth suggests taking a look at initial goals to determine if they were realistic to begin with. It’s not uncommon for institutions to set goals without a true understanding of how large the market is and how much of it they could reasonably expect to capture. Or perhaps your school simply made too many assumptions.
Declining enrollment warrants even more scrutiny, especially if the problem has persisted for a few years. Once you’ve identified that enrollment is falling, it’s important to start gathering information on what’s driving that downward trend. Look into feedback from students, admissions staff and faculty members. You’ll also want to conduct some market research to identify whether other colleges and universities are experiencing similar struggles with that particular program.
“Is the decline isolated to you? If that’s the case, then you probably have a program problem,” Arnseth says. “It’s likely not delivering what the market is asking for.”
There could be numerous reasons why students would gravitate toward other programs. Perhaps your institution offers a residential experience, but prospects tend to be adult learners who need the flexibility of an online program. Or maybe other institutions offer more academic support services and access to professional development opportunities. Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about new enrollments as it is persistence and retention.
While any program struggling with enrollment needs to be scrutinized on an individual basis, it’s also essential to consider it in the broader context of your entire portfolio. Eliminating a degree, even if it’s attracting fewer students, may not be feasible or prudent.
“Let’s say criminal justice, one of your legacy programs, is in decline but it still draws pretty good enrollment volume,” Arnseth offers. “If you were to completely get rid of that program, it would result in a significant loss of new students to your institution as a whole.”
2. The market has shifted away
Perhaps upon researching how the market is trending for a struggling program, it becomes clear the issue is widespread. This is certainly the case for undergraduate foreign language programs, for example. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in this field decreased 22 percent from 2013 to 2018.
“If everybody is in decline, then the market is shifting away from that program,” Arnseth explains. “That might be a sign that you as an institution should consider moving away from it.”
While researching student preferences can be helpful, don’t underestimate how valuable it is to keep tabs on your institution’s graduates. How they fare after obtaining their degree says a lot about whether the program effectively prepared them for their professional lives.
“Are students getting jobs when they graduate?” Arnseth offers. “If that has negatively changed over time, it could indicate that employment needs are different than they were when you first introduced the program.”
One very important reminder is to acknowledge that job market needs at the regional level can be quite different than they are nationally. Again, consider the field of foreign language. An institution based in New Mexico, a state where nearly 50 percent of the population is Hispanic, is likely part of a community that has many people whose first language is Spanish. Such an institution probably shouldn’t eliminate their undergraduate foreign language offerings, because there’s a high need for professionals who can communicate in Spanish.
3. It’s expensive to maintain
Educators typically warn that cutting programs solely due to financial strain is unadvisable. But if a program is yielding a negative return on investment [ROI] year after year, it’s worth considering whether the offering is sustainable in the long run. Think about it in the overall portfolio context as well. Perhaps other offerings are able to offset some losses incurred from a particular program.
“Just remember to keep the bigger picture in mind rather than only zeroing in on the program,” Arnseth recommends.
4. It’s not a good fit for the institution
There are actually a few fit-related issues that can plague a program. One potential issue is that it’s simply too similar to other offerings to provide any unique value – it might just be redundant. The other possible problem is that the program is too different, too niche. Remember, it’s important to consider every offering in the larger context of the institution.
“Make sure all of the programs you offer make sense in your broader portfolio so there aren’t outliers that don’t align with anything else,” Arnseth suggests. For instance, it makes little sense to offer a master’s degree in a field for which there are no related bachelor’s degrees that could otherwise create a streamlined path for graduates.
Also consider how a struggling program is related to the institutional identity. Sometimes a particular degree is so engrained in the college that cutting it seems impossible or at least unsavory. Arnseth suggests asking yourself how important it is to the overall mission.
“Think about religious institutions and how they offer theology and religious studies,” Arnseth explains. “Those programs define who they are.”
Navigating the process of cutting a program
Perhaps it’s becoming clearer that it might be time to cut one or more programs. Even if it seems obvious that eliminating something is the right move, make sure the decision is collaborative.
“Don’t do this in a silo. Invite all functional areas to the table with their data and analysis,” Arnseth advises. “Finance, faculty, marketing, admissions, course development – all of these people will have a different view on the strengths and weaknesses of the program.”
This process should be standard across every program that’s being considered for elimination as well. Evaluating every offering using the same criteria is the only way to ensure decisions are as fair as possible. Also bear in mind that just because a program isn’t a good option for offering as a stand-alone degree doesn’t mean it has to disappear entirely.
“Maybe there’s a way to let some of it live on in other programs,” Arnseth explains. “Perhaps offering it as a minor or a concentration is a better fit.” This option can also help preserve faculty positions.
Perhaps the most important part of implementing a cut is ensuring students currently in the program have a pathway to complete their degree. Some colleges and universities offer an option for students to transition to other programs. But students who want the degree they’ve ultimately pursued must be allowed to obtain it.
“If they’ve enrolled in that program, then you’ve committed to continuing it through to their graduation,” Arnseth states.
Review and refine your portfolio
Determining whether it’s time to let a program go is difficult and complex. Institutions need to weigh numerous factors that are often at-odds with one another. It’s essential to approach the decision to eliminate a program in a constructive, collaborative way to ensure there’s a thorough understanding of all implications.
Perhaps the most important message when making any portfolio adjustment is to be thoughtful, and that goes for deciding to bring new offerings to the mix as well. What first seems like a blossoming opportunity may actually be a misstep. Learn more about how to evaluate offering something new by visiting our article “6 Things to Think About When Considering Launching a New Program.”