If you build it, will they come?
Here are three key questions that years of research have taught us to ask when determining whether or not schools should go ahead with new programs.
#1 Are you educating people for careers that don’t exist?
Institutions often offer new programs based on anecdotal information about what students want or because professors volunteer to create new programs that align with their academic interests. But today's students face mounting pressure to enroll in programs that will prepare them to find stable and fulfilling work once they graduate. Now is the time for schools to think beyond attracting students and to focus on setting them up for a successful future.
Schools looking to best serve their current and prospective students will often undertake new program feasibility studies to help make decisions on which programs will attract, retain, and fulfill students and which ones won't. And one of the first components of these studies is a job market analysis.
These custom studies:
- look at what jobs a graduate of the proposed program could reasonably expect to obtain;
- assess if the jobs are on an upward trend in your school's local region;
- assess if the jobs are on a downward trend in your school’s local region;
- determine if your graduates' expected salaries justify the cost of taking your program.
Proper research and analysis can help answer some of these key questions for both new and existing programs.
Recently, Academica Group worked with a small Ontario university with over 9,000 undergraduates to perform studies of this type for 20 different programs, both proposed and new, ranging from Adult Education to Nutritional Science. When the results came back, the school modified some of its existing programs, decided not to push ahead with others, and fine-tuned some of its new offerings to better serve their students' career prospects.
#2 Has someone else beaten you to it?
So you truly believe that your school's new program is the first of its kind. But is it really? There can be a strong temptation for schools to believe their ideas are unique, but this might not count for much if prospective students can't see this uniqueness as clearly as you do. That’s why a program feasibility study will almost always perform a comprehensive review of similar programs already being offered by comparable institutions. Another key way to deal with the issue of your new program’s perceived value is to ask the students themselves, which means running a well-crafted survey to solicit feedback on your program description.
The results of these surveys can vary considerably, which is exactly why they’re so valuable. Over the years, our program feasibility research has used our StudentVu panel to get feedback from thousands of current and prospective students from across the country on program offerings being considered by specific schools. Constructive criticism from panelists can include:
- “The program description is too broad/vague.”
- “I’m not sure about what I could do with a degree from this program.”
- “I don’t associate this school with excellence in this area.”
These are the kinds of insights that have a direct impact on a school’s decision to proceed or not proceed with a new program offering. If a school decides to go ahead, the feedback also has a major impact on how it shapes both its program and the messaging/promotion of that program.
#3 Are you ready to go to bat for your grads?
So you’ve looked at the data and talked to some real prospective students, and things look good. But no matter how well you educate your students, there is still the risk that the world awaiting them beyond graduation won’t see their value, especially if they are graduating from a new and mostly unknown program. It’s no secret that now more than ever, the transition from PSE into the workforce is a challenge for both graduates and prospective employers. Yes, you need to educate and train your students. But you also need to educate employers about the value they can gain from your program’s graduates.
Effective new program feasibility studies will include not only student perspectives, but the perspectives of key employers operating in your school’s surrounding region and beyond. Employers should be asked to reflect on the new program’s description, why they would or would not hire one of its graduates, their thoughts on the current job situation in their sector, and what features they would like to see in a new program. One of the most common answers we’ve received over the years is that employers would like to see more experiential learning and work placement opportunities in new programs. They want students to feel confident entering a new workplace.
Because employers place such a premium on experiential learning, good feasibility studies will almost always ask them if they would consider partnering directly with the school to offer co-op placements or work integrated learning (WIL) opportunities for students entering the proposed new program. It’s nice to report that in many cases, more than 60% indicate they would be interested in talking more about these opportunities.
LESSON LEARNED: Never assume that you simply know what new programs will attract students AND set them up for future success. This sort of insight can only be gleaned by directly engaging with reliable data, the students themselves, and the people who might one day want to employ them. It’s no longer good enough to assume that if we offer new programs that give students a great education, the rest will just work itself out. New programs need to be designed strategically to make sure they’re fiscally responsible to the school and ethically responsible to their future students.
Academica Group combines world-class market research with deep industry experience to provide strategic recruitment, reputation, and retention consulting for higher education.We've been studying what makes higher education tick for 25 years, and during that time we've stayed ahead of the curve. We convert data into intelligence, and information into insight.