The importance of envisioning future course and program portfolios will be familiar to readers of my recent blogs. Provosts, deans, and others responsible for academic resourcing invest time and money to get better data on their portfolios: e.g., by using Gray Associates’ Program Economics Platform (PEP). These data help them identify strategies for improvement, which is especially important given the current Covid-19 disruptions. We are pleased to introduce PEP+, our new predictive model for envisioning the consequences of changing a school’s lineup of courses and programs, just in time to help mitigate these disruptions.
The recent Chronicle of Higher Education/Deloitte report, “The College Business Model in a Crisis,” rekindled my concerns about the ultimate purposes of our enterprise and how these purposes can more effectively guide planning and operational decision-making. The questions are no longer hypothetical, if indeed they ever were. Will problem-solving triggered by the hyper-disruptive COVID-19 event reaffirm core academic values or will it spawn new business models that, over time, will undermine them?
Escaping the Program Equality Quagmire
Academic programs, and the courses that deliver their content, are not of equal importance. The implications of this came home to me recently when, in a webinar on academic resourcing, a participant objected that provosts and deans should not “put their thumbs on the scale” by considering program importance when deciding admission targets and departmental budgets. “All programs and courses are of equal importance,” the participant asserted. “Providing their quality is good, all should have equal access to funding.”
It’s Time for a Revolution in Academic Resourcing
This new academic year is unlike any other. Colleges and universities are coping with nasty deficits and cash flow problems, but the probable long-term disruptions are even more worrisome. Never in my half-century of close involvement with academic resourcing have I seen such threats to the operating and financial sustainability of so many institutions. As Charles Dickens said, it is the worst of times.
The recent New York Times op-ed about how to make online courses more engaging got me thinking about course redesign generally, especially as it applies in the current COVID-driven environment. Readers may recall my blogs on pruning unneeded courses and rebalancing program portfolios. When done well, these actions can allow the institution to cut costs and boost revenues while minimizing the adverse impacts on student learning and faculty workloads. As noted in the “rebalancing” blog, they fall into the set of four such actions shown at the right. Course redesign is element 3 of this action set.
What college or university doesn’t have money problems these days? We’ve seen such problems before but this time they’re deeper and more acute. In the “good old days,” such as the stagflation of the 1970s and the economic recessions of the 80s, 90s, and 2008, the solutions involved a grab-bag of common-sense actions based on relatively crude information. These include: cutting fixed percentages of cost from administrative and support services, pressing upwards on class sizes and teaching loads, substituting adjunct for regular faculty wherever possible, and hacking away at small classes. In today’s environment, however, the sufficiency of these actions seems doubtful because of the depth of the money problems and because the low-hanging fruit already has been depleted by years of belt-tightening.
Dislodging Events A Potential Curb on Course and Program Proliferation
Steve Probst’s recent blog on curricular efficiency reminded me how serious the course and program proliferation problem has become for America’s colleges and universities. For example, my forthcoming book reports that:
“Many programs persist beyond what should have been their sell-by dates. In one dataset reported by Bob Zemsky, for example, a daunting 48 percent of programs turned out ten or fewer graduates per year and collectively accounted for only 7 percent of all degrees granted . Bob puts the matter succinctly: “We [colleges] give students what they want. Most colleges can’t afford to do so without understanding why they can’t.” This doesn’t mean all low-enrollment programs should go on trial, but campuses do need serious and well-informed conversations on the matter” (p. 6).
That “we are all coronavirus fighters now” hit me with a vengeance when I cut short my Mexican vacation and settled into a regimen of hand-washing and social distancing. This applies no less to colleges and universities in the United States and across the world. Schools are canceling face-to-face classes, and many are sending students home or telling them not to return from spring break. I wondered how academic resourcing (AR) models—the subject on which I’ve worked during the past decade—will impact institutional efforts to combat the coronavirus and deal with its consequences. To put the matter bluntly, will the momentum toward data-informed decision-making that has been building over the last few years be blunted by the coronavirus emergency? I believe this outcome would be a real setback for higher education—and also that it is not supported, let alone dictated, by the facts of the situation.
Recently I revisited last summer’s joint statement by AIR, EDUCAUSE, and NACUBO entitled, “Analytics Can Save Higher Education. Really.” It’s something all of us analytically-minded higher education people can and should get behind. I’m thrilled that these three organizations have made analytics a priority, and that they are working to spread the information and knowhow that will spur adoption.
Reading the statement reminded me of the tools we had to rely on before the development of today’s academic resourcing models that I've been writing about in these blogs. The improvements are relevant for achieving the benefits described in the joint statement referenced above as well as my own Reengineering the University and forthcoming Resource Management for Colleges and Universities. I'd like to share some of my experience in the early days of higher education analytics to show just how big a change the current models portend, and why that change is so important.
I’ve been writing a lot here about how modern analytics can help a college or university make better academic program portfolio decisions. For example, which programs, if any, should be expanded, downsized, or eliminated. These are mission-critical because it is through degree and other formally organized programs that institutions present their teaching prowess to the marketplace. Faculty usually focus on individual courses, but students look at programs when they decide which school to attend and what they say about it to their parents and peers. Thinking about program portfolios holistically helps schools compete in the marketplace, serve students better, and manage course availabilities and staffing more effectively. These matters fall squarely into the wheelhouse of both academic and financial officers.