Should your new program be a standalone degree, concentration, or certificate? Here are 4 factors to consider.

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Should your new program be a standalone degree, concentration, or certificate? Here are 4 factors to consider.

As a researcher on our Market Insights team, I spend most of my day helping leaders of graduate, online, and professional programs explore programs to launch or refresh. One of the most common questions I receive is: should we launch this offering as a standalone master’s program or as a concentration or certificate within a master’s program? In many cases, this decision is not clear-cut—and there are tradeoffs that come with each option.

Here are four factors to consider as you weigh whether to offer a full degree program or as a concentration or certificate within a degree program.

1. To what extent do we have the resources to offer a full degree?

The first thing administrators should consider when interested in launching a new program—whether a concentration, certificate, or standalone degree program—is: do we have the resources to support a new program? Consider personnel expenditures, such as faculty, administrative assistants, technicians, and teaching assistants, but also operating expenditures such as infrastructure, equipment, and even office supplies. And don’t overlook the impact a new program would have on resources available to existing programs.

It’s also critical to consider marketing expenses. Each program’s marketing expenses are impacted by discipline, modality, target audience, and position in the overall academic portfolio, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a marketing budget.

Resource limitations may prevent the development of an entirely new degree, but additions to existing curriculum or a smaller certificate may be feasible. Check out EAB’s program launch toolkit and program budget templates to assess your school’s financial capacity to offer a new program.

2. Does the curriculum enhance an existing topic, or focus on a new topic area that merits its own degree?

Consider whether a new concentration or field of study is distinct in terms of concepts or simply tools and pedagogy. For example, the digital humanities field, which emerged a little over a decade ago, describes the use and analysis of digital resources within the humanities. While the field earned its own Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code in the 2020 update, you could argue embedding digital humanities concepts and methods into existing humanities programs better serves students (and institutions).

If a topic would add flavor to an existing program, it could work well as a concentration or certificate. And think about if students will be satisfied with just a taste of the topic, or if students would value and need a deeper dive on that topic and therefore be most interested in a full degree program.

Related questions to contemplate include:

  • Is this a topic that will attract students with specific and short-term career goals in mind?
  • Is this a topic that will cater to students who seek a late-career tune up or want to qualify for a particular career move?
  • Would this coursework provide the latest information on a highly dynamic topic?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, a concentration or certificate may be your best bet.

3. How has related coursework offered at our institution performed in the past?

It’s also important to consider whether your institution has offered similar coursework in the past, and if so, how students responded to the curriculum. If you have not offered coursework related to your proposed program in the past, consider testing the new content via a smaller offering to determine how students respond to the curriculum—before investing in a full degree.

For example, Northwestern University’s Predictive Analytics program developed a practice to test the viability of new analytics applications quickly. First, administrators identify strong market opportunity areas and offer select courses in those fields as rotating electives. If an elective garners high student demand, it is then offered as a permanent elective. Eventually, two or more electives are introduced permanently, and those electives are packaged together as a standalone certificate. This approach allows for smaller investments early to validate student interest, while also creating certificates which can serve new and current students alike.

Consider Stackable Credentials

Stackable credentials appeal to adult learners and may aid in retention for continued education. This efficient and accessible method appeals to adult learners who often seek accelerated programs that offer opportunities for degree personalization.

4. Will this coursework remain in demand for a long time?

Don’t forget to factor in the longevity of the proposed field and program. While it can be tempting to launch a program in an emerging field, it’s important to consider how programs in these areas will fare in the market five and 10 years from now. Programs serving an of-the-moment need risk consuming resources better spent elsewhere. Plus, by the time you have launched a new program in a hot field, demand for that program may have come and gone.

Offering an elective in an emerging field—as opposed to a full, standalone program or even a concentration or certificate—enables your institution to capitalize on student interest, but not overinvest in a field without longstanding demand. To assess a program’s viability, look at the field’s projected outlook between now and 2031. Below we’ve sampled projections for some of the most popular fields:

  • Average across all occupations: 6.28%
  • Business (General)* occupational growth: 8.11%
  • Registered Nurses: 8.72%
  • Management: 9.33%
  • Health Education: 12.59%
  • Computer and Information Analysts: 13.57%
  • Counseling, Social Workers, and Other Community and Social Service Specialists: 14.90%
  • Information Security Analysts: 28.65%
  • Nurse Practitioners: 44.16%

*According to the Princeton review, the top five most popular concentrations within an MBA program are: Strategy, Corporate Finance, Operations, Entrepreneurship, and Management.

Of course, a field’s projected outlook is just one component of a larger analysis rooted in labor market demand, student demand, and competitor data. Once you’ve decided to offer a new program, confirm its viability using EAB’s Market Insights expertise and program launch resources to make an informed and well-researched launch decision.

Design programs for enrollment growth

Join former graduate school dean Dr. Will Lamb to hear more about the program design considerations that most impact enrollment growth.

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