Differentiating Your Academic Programs

According to a survey of chief financial officers by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the financial crisis that has caused upheavals in other sectors hasn't prompted radical changes in how most colleges operate (with a few big exceptions). This may be a sign that the full effect of the economic fallout has yet to hit home on many campuses, or that strong enrollments and stimulus funds have helped institutions in the short-term. But as stimulus funds are not recurring, it is especially vital that public institutions make substantive, long-term moves to ensure their sustainability.

Many institutions are already engaged in budget scenario planning to prepare for that fallout, but that may not be enough. Given both continuing budget constraints and rising demand for higher education, this is the time to ensure your academic program mix is positioning your institution for future success.

Don't Lose Sight of the Mission

Some institutions chase the latest demand at the expense of their mission, while others stick too closely to tradition, and miss critical new opportunities. The key to differentiating your academic programs is to find the right intersection between your institution's mission and changing demand in the marketplace.

Even if a particular program does not have strong market demand, continuing and enriching the program may still be an important use of institutional resources because of the program's relevance to your mission. For example, an English or Philosophy major at a liberal arts college may not be the most marketable major, but these programs may be essential to a mission of educating "citizens of the world."

Evaluate the Marketability of Your Majors

Yet it is also a mistake to ignore the needs of the market. We asked Bob Sevier, Senior Vice President of Strategy at STAMATS, for advice on differentiating the academic curriculum in ways that the marketplace values. Sevier recommends periodic evaluation of the marketability of your majors.

"Don't just evaluate quality; evaluate quality and demand."
Bob Sevier, STAMATS

Most assessments of academic programs, Sevier notes, are administered by faculty and are inward-looking, with an eye toward communicating program effectiveness to the accrediting body. "Almost inevitably, these assessments find that the reason a program is less effective is lack of resources, rather than lack of demand."

Who Needs to Be Involved

We asked who should be responsible for evaluating majors. "A powerful combination," Sevier advises, would be a committee that includes the chief marketing or communications officer, the chief admissions officer, and faculty representatives, chaired by the chief academic officer. It is critical that the chief academic officer bring together both a fidelity to the institution's academic mission and an understanding and respect for marketplace forces.

What to Ask

When evaluating a major -- whether a current major or a proposed major, ask:

  • How does this major contribute to our ability to serve our mission?
  • Are students interested in this major?
  • Are employers interested in this major?
  • Can we do this program well? Do we have in place the necessary technology, faculty expertise, facilities, and strategic relationships?
  • Are we the only ones offering this major? If not, can we teach this major in a different way?
  • How can we promote the major?

If you don't have the time for formal research into employers' needs, begin by talking to your career planning & placement office, and your continuing education department -- these are offices that watch the marketplace and work with employers regularly, and may be able to give you a lot of current information.

The Sizzle and the Steak

You can only differentiate on the four P's -- product, price, place, and promotion. Differentiating based on price, Sevier notes, is a losing proposition: "someone is always willing to undercut you." And remember that promotion alone is not enough. Promotion is "selling the sizzle, but eventually you have to deliver a great steak."

So stay focused on product -- identifying the right programs for your institution to serve today's market in accordance with your mission -- and on place -- continuing to expand your services to meet the needs of your students.