Grow New Academic Programs that Meet Employer Demand

By: Denton DeSotel, Ed.M.

As workforce needs evolve, higher education must ensure college graduates have career skills that last. New academic programs can meet employer demand and boost student enrollment if data guides the process. 

Developing new academic programs or updating existing ones can help colleges and universities serve students, communities, and industries. But not every program is right for every institution and not every program succeeds. So how can colleges and universities predict which new degree or certificate will provide a solid return on investment? The answer lies in a complex matrix of student demand, employer needs, job data, and an in-depth understanding of the competitive market. 

While savvy administrators know data is key to successful new program development, it can still be a challenge to find time, resources, and the political will to let facts guide the process, rather than hunches, hopes, or the loudest voices in the room. 

The Importance of Market Analysis in Academic Program Development

Many institutions have learned the hard way that without a comprehensive market analysis and marketing strategy, it can be difficult to meet enrollment goals for a new program. Among new programs launched across all institution types in 2018, one study showed that a whopping 63% produced 10 or fewer graduates. When the average cost of running a new program can be up to $500,000 per year, colleges and universities take on large financial risk if there is not adequate evidence of a program’s viability. 

Here are five ways to increase the likelihood of implementing successful new academic programs that meet employer demand and boost student enrollment. 

Evaluate Your Current Academic Portfolio Before Adding New Programs

Before considering any new program proposals, it’s important to systematically evaluate your institution’s current academic programs to understand how they align with broad market trends, student interests, and employer needs.  

You may find an existing program could use refreshing to better align with today’s labor market. Or you may notice that adding a new credential to an already strong program may be an easier path to expanding academic opportunities (for example, adding a short-term certificate or a master’s degree to a successful bachelor’s degree program). Ultimately, there are multiple ways to optimize the programs your institution offers. Depending on the circumstances, refreshing or reimagining programs that already exist is sometimes a better alternative to starting a new program from scratch. 

When you are ready to add a new offering to complement your existing portfolio, build in adequate time for conducting research to assess demand and scope viability using multiple methods. This could include surveying prospective students, talking to employers, and doing a competitive analysis of peer institution programs.  

Additionally, approach academic program review work as an interdisciplinary initiative with other campus departments. Marketing, recruitment, and admissions teams can provide additional demand insights you may not easily find elsewhere. For example, marketing offices can share website analytics on the most-searched degrees or subjects on your website.  

Curious about which academic programs are capturing the greatest student interest? Download the Top 10 Degrees on the Rise in 2022 infographic. 

Develop New Programs with a Graduate Outcomes Mindset

In today’s marketplace, prospective students want to understand how a degree or certificate will benefit their career, whether they are just beginning to explore their professional path or are upskilling mid-career. While higher education is about much more than securing employment, it is a primary reason why students first consider investing considerable time and money into a degree. When considering an academic program, students expect a solid answer to a critical question: “What can I do with this degree?” With this in mind, institutions must make a program’s value proposition clear upfront. 

To ensure a program is designed to help students develop skills that transfer to the workplace, keep a finger on the pulse of employers within your region, whether through industry advisory boards, trade associations, interviews, or surveys. Find out what hard and soft skills gaps exist that your institution may be able to address through restructured coursework or a new credential. 

See which skills employers look for in new graduates. Download the Top Career Skills for New Grads infographic. 

Consider Alternatives to a Traditional Degree Program

At a recent Hanover webinar, a panel of higher education leaders shared a common view that the future of academic program development will include an increase in alternative credentials. With so many different credential models available — including microcredentials, stackable certificates, and online professional learning — students and employers alike are becoming more interested in and accepting of alternative credentials. This is an opportune time to consider such programs, which typically can be stood up faster than a full degree program. 

Build Varied Experiences into Curriculum  

Employers are increasingly looking to hire employees who can demonstrate both hard and soft skills necessary for success in the workplace. To help new graduates become more well-rounded job candidates, find ways to build applied or experiential learning experiences into a program’s curriculum. For example, paid or unpaid experiential learning opportunities — such as internships, apprenticeships, service learning, and job shadowing — are highly prized by many employers because they speak to hands-on experience and the real-world application of classroom knowledge and skills. 

Be Ready to Monitor, Adjust, and Pivot

As workplace and marketplace demands evolve, it’s crucial to attend to emerging needs and insights from employers, students, and faculty alike. Be open to receiving new information and encourage others at your institution to make data-informed programming decisions. While institutional culture can sometimes be weighed down by traditions and inertia, the more you can model the ability to pivot, the more your college or university will benefit from smart enrollment growth strategies. 

Hear from other higher education leaders how they are navigating programmatic changes at their institutions in Hanover’s webinar Developing Academic Programs in a New Era. 

 

Colleges and universities must continuously make the case for the value of higher education, even though, at times, it’s a challenge to face rising tuition, increasing student debt, and shifting public perceptions about the value of a traditional degree.  

To succeed, institutions must do more to ensure their academic programs provide a solid footing for graduates to step onto sustainable career paths. The effective use of data and market research will ensure institutions continue adapting to student and employer needs, facilitating program expansion that will drive enrollment for many years to come. 

— Denton DeSotel, Ed.M., Senior Research Advisor, Higher Education, Hanover Research 

Wondering where to take your institution’s academic programming next? Download the Top Career Skills for New Grads infographic to see what skills and experiences your students will need.

Academic programs must provide students with career skills that match workforce and employer demand

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