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4 Critical Strategies for Matching Academic Programs to Student Demand 

Launching successful academic programs and boosting enrollment requires colleges and universities to regularly survey students and monitor degree and labor trends. 

In an increasingly competitive higher education landscape, faculty expertise and high-quality curricula are no longer enough to guarantee program or institutional success. To make enrollment gains, student demand must be considered when developing or reviewing academic offerings. But do you know how closely your institution’s academic programs match the top degrees students want to study? 

Of course, many factors contribute to students’ program interests and decisions. When reviewing or developing programs, colleges and universities should develop a multi-faceted approach that takes into consideration both employer demand and prospective student interest. Here are four considerations to help you evaluate which degree or certificate programs will best align with students’ interests and needs. 

Compare Your Academic Portfolio to the Top Rising Degrees and Careers

Each year, Hanover Research analyzes the top 10 fastest-growing degrees and careers to help colleges and universities apply fresh insights to their program planning. Nearly 60% of our member institutions requested help with program development research last year. So, while institutions are eager to launch new programs to boost enrollment — especially in the aftermath of the pandemic — many aren’t exactly sure how to best use data to drive these decisions.  

In 2022, we’ve spotted a few interesting trends among programs on the rise. While some of the programs are new or appear to be linked to emerging labor market or pandemic-related factors, others are in well-established fields that are enjoying renewed attention. A few highlights: 

  •  Non-Clinical Health Professions: Interest in public health and other health sciences that don’t involve direct patient care continues to rise, potentially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, health programs that do not have intensive clinical requirements and can be completed fully online may be more appealing to some students. 
  • Intelligence and Cyber Operations: This year’s data show a rise in both degrees and occupations focused on intelligence operations and information security, such as cybersecurity, particularly in military and government environments 
  • Wellness and the Environment: A rise in sustainability studies and a steady interest in mental health and social work professions also suggest that many students are looking for meaningful careers that contribute to the greater good. 
Download the Top 10 Degrees on the Rise infographic to see the full list of programs holding the most student interest in 2022. 

Gather Data on What Influences Prospective Student Decisions

It’s vital for institutions to gather up-to-date information on academic plans and preferences with regular prospective student surveys. These surveys can uncover intended fields of study and the factors that drive enrollment decisions. In addition, analyzing degree and certificate completion data can reveal the evolving popularity of specific fields of study. Drilling down into specific geographies and sets of institutions, this data can help uncover areas of unmet demand.

Find out what factors drive enrollment among prospective students in our 2021 State of Prospective Student Enrollment survey results.

Reach More Students by Attuning to Different Geographies

As institutions enter new geographies and markets — aided by the rise of online programs — it’s no longer sufficient to consider only local or regional data. Degrees must apply to a wider, more diverse student body, which requires college and university leaders to pay attention to what’s happening with industries, employers, and prospective students in other locales as well.  

 For example, a student’s interest in pursuing a particular career could change depending on the average salary and the cost of living where they live. In many U.S. cities, a $100,000 salary may feel insufficient to support a family, which could drive some students to pursue fields with greater earning potential. While earnings data shouldn’t necessarily prevent an institution from offering a degree, it could greatly alter how that program is marketed in one geographic area compared to another. 

Get more actionable program development tips with Hanover’s Four Critical Steps to Optimize Degree Program Portfolios in an Era of Change

Weigh New Academic Program Costs and Benefits

If your institution has decided to add a new academic program to its portfolio, be sure to determine what a sustainable program size would be. While scaling student enrollment in a new program is critical, it’s equally important to quantify the resources and investments necessary to offer the program in the first year and each year after.  

At most undergraduate institutions, the majority of students are enrolled in just 12 programs. So, while it’s tempting for colleges and universities to continue expanding their academic program portfolio, adding a new program does not always equate to an enrollment gain. Carefully forecasting enrollment-related data—including capacity, expected volume, costs, and revenue—is critical to making sound decisions for the long-term health of the institution. 

Looking for on-the-ground insights from fellow higher education leaders? Don’t miss Hanover’s executive panel webinar on Developing Academic Programs in a New Era

As today’s high school seniors mull over their college and career choices, it’s clear their professional lives will look different than yours or mine. An academic program portfolio built for a pre-pandemic era may not withstand the forces of change these students will face in their lifetimes. Make sure your institution stays relevant by using student-centered data to drive forward-looking decisions that will increase enrollment for the long term. 

Stay ahead of the enrollment curve by downloading the Top 10 Degrees on the Rise in 2023 infographic. 


— Paul Gibson, PhD, Managing Director, Higher Education Research, Hanover Research 

Author Information

Managing Content Director, Higher Education
View All Author Information
Education: PhD, Modern U.S. History, University of Maryland
Areas of Expertise: Academic program development, Alumni engagement

Paul is a seasoned research professional whose work with Hanover is informed by practical teaching experience leading college classrooms both in person and online. Since joining Hanover in 2014, Paul has managed the research strategies of more than 50 colleges and universities, supporting administrators in making critical business decisions. As Managing Content Director, he now applies his strategic, data-driven approach to the service of Hanover’s entire Higher Education cohort. His responsibilities focus on driving research quality and innovation practicewide.

Prior to joining Hanover, Paul managed a bespoke research service, providing on-demand archival research support to academic professionals, law firms, and industry clients.

"Working with higher education institutions is deeply satisfying because our partnerships strengthen their business operations and help expand their positive impact on the world."
consult the top degrees when developing new programs

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