How program evaluations can help improve your college’s future

Identifying fields that are hot with students and employers is key, along with courses that are too small or redundant.

When is the last time your institution evaluated its program portfolio?

Bob Atkins, CEO and founder of consultancy Gray Associates Inc., says given the state of higher education and the struggles of many colleges and universities to grow revenues, it might be time to consider it.

“The financials are getting crushed because costs aren’t going down and revenues are,” he says. “But there is a path around it, which is to find the right programs. That’s the only thing that can get an institution healthy again. It’s hard to cut your way to solvency.’

Atkins, whose firm assists higher ed clients in their planning, is writing the book on how to make change, called Start, Stop, or Grow?: A Data-Informed Approach To Academic Program Evaluation And Management. As jobs of the future bring more demands, institutions must adapt to deliver the right courses and streamline what they offer – namely those that students want and those that employers desire, while eliminating the courses that serve the least number of students.

“Program evaluations affect what generations of students will learn, what skills they will develop, and the success they will have at work,” Atkins says. “Evaluations change the institutions, driving academic costs – who will be hired and let go, what research will be done—and guiding how our science, culture and ethics will be handed down from one generation to the next.” The key to any smart approach is to be data-driven, he says.

More from UB: Online courses, remote pivot alter higher ed landscape

What are some of the obvious fields that are hot? Those where shortages exist, such as data analytics and coding, software and nursing. But there are other surprises. To learn more about the future of higher ed and new strategies and common misconceptions about the evaluation process, University Business sat down with Atkins, who helps colleges decide which academic programs they should offer based on demand, employment and degree fit:

You say, “The foundations of program evaluation and management are under severe stress.” What is not working right now?

You’ve got declining student interest in higher ed. You’ve got increasing competition, especially online. That makes the odds of being successful go down. A lot of program research tended to be what people were interested in teaching. When data was provided, it came from different sources, and it might cover only 25-75% of the issues. The data isn’t very good, and guesses don’t work anymore.

What elements of higher education are being impacted the most?

The faculty are feeling it. Some departments are beleaguered. Languages have been collapsing for 10 years. So people are looking for ways to reduce costs. What we do is teach them curricular efficiency so they can reduce the cost on a campus that has fewer students. Second, they’re looking for programs that can increase revenue. Almost all of them are facing shortfalls.

What are some of the misconceptions colleges lean on when trying to improve program portfolios?

One is that you save money by reducing the programs you offer. Most programs make money at the margin. If you’re trying to cut costs by cutting programs, you’ll likely see revenue go down faster. You have to get down to courses and section level. There’s a lot being spent on courses that are redundant—statistics taught in three departments. Stats are stats at some level. The second is too many courses for a given subject. Asking how many we really need allows you to keep classrooms full. When classrooms are full, the cost per student goes down and the quality likely will go up. The institution can start to focus on fewer things.

Another misconception is the vendetta against the humanities. A lot of that is based on bad numbers. When people analyze jobs available to graduates, they tend to use the National Center for Education Statistics crosswalk. Historian is one of the jobs that crosswalks to the history major. If you add up all the fields they are prepared for, it comes out to under 10. History majors actually go into 642 fields. They become legislators, they become lawyers, some become surgeons. The view that humanities are a dead end is to some extent supported by bad data.

There is also a myth that class size is correlated with quality. The best courses I took were in front of 100 people. Some of the finest institutions in the country are teaching big classes. At Harvard Business School, the average class size is 95.

Can you share some thoughts on how colleges can better retain students?

Intensive advising has been proven to work—at double or triple the level that exists now. Targeted financial aid can make a huge difference. Often just a few hundred dollars can have a material effect on retention. There’s a lot that can be done with automation, especially AI and chatbots that say, ‘Have you filled out your financial aid form yet? Have you registered for classes?’ Those two had a dramatic impact on summer melt. When you look at why people leave college, especially people from underserved backgrounds, it’s that life gets in the way—they get pregnant, their car breaks down, they lack childcare. So, providing more support for those life issues. If I had empty dorms right now, one of the things I’d be saying is, come on in, we’ll find room and you can continue your education. I wonder if some colleges shouldn’t be looking at temporary housing anyway.

What about three-year degrees vs. traditional four-year paths?

The answer lies in the individual. As somebody who went through college in three years, it was the worst mistake I made because I wasn’t ready for the job search. I wasted five years in retail. It would have been cheaper to do another year in college. But if that program is aimed at a job, it’s probably less of an issue, such as a shorter nursing program because you know what you want to do to become a nurse. But a history major? Good luck with that. I think the smarter path is to get a four-year master’s degree.

What else are you seeing?

There’s a lot of shrinking going on. Languages have been under siege, but I’ve seen some growth in Spanish. Some of that’s going online and to the MOOCs. And in tech, a lot of certificate-level training is happening in the MOOCs. Figuring out how to do certs is challenging [because of cost]. The short answer is you don’t sell to students, you sell to employers, who pay the bill.

There are other dimensions that are absolutely vital if you’re going to get higher ed healthier. One is men. It is now 60-40 female to male, and we have empty seats. If we could get men to show up, most of these schools would be growing again. … And most colleges don’t need to recruit more students. They just need to keep the ones that they have. There’s also pressure to vocationalize higher ed, but there’s more to higher ed than getting ready for a job—getting a broader education, understanding the history of our country and how civics works. Even in fields like nursing, studies have demonstrated that having a generalist foundation makes you a better nurse.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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