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.
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).
How To Gauge Shifts in Student Demand and Employment Caused by the Pandemic
Just as the novel coronavirus has disrupted our lives, it is changing the societal context for higher education. More specifically, the programs students want and whether they want to take them online or on-campus have undergone massive changes, as have job options for interns and graduates. Colleges need data on “what just happened” so they can correctly understand and respond to their new context.
Traditional data on higher education and employment won’t help much in the short term. IPEDS data on 2020 enrollment and completions will not be published until 2021 or 2022. The same is true for BLS data on employment by Standard Occupation Code.
Cutting Academic Costs and Improving Curricular Efficiency
If You Must, Here’s How
COVID-19 will require deep cost cuts at many colleges, or they simply won’t survive. It is unpleasant, even disturbing work. But like all work, it can be done well or badly, quickly or slowly. Bad cuts unnecessarily damage the mission and people. Bad cuts drag on and undermine morale and confidence in leadership. They are usually the result of short-sighted thinking, incomplete or erroneous information and data, bad information, and lack of courage. Good cuts use sound data and robust, fast processes to create a leaner, financially sustainable, mission-centered institution. Here’s how.
What if reducing overhead costs and cutting too-small programs were not the only practical ways to control college costs?
If a department offers five electives to serve 75 students, then the average class size for these electives would be 15 students. If the department adds another elective, all six electives would be likely to have enough students to justify offering these classes under typical policies. However, the department would have just added to teaching load – and costs and potentially staffing – without increasing the actual amount of teaching and learning being done.
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.