How to find the growth drivers in your graduate and adult education portfolio

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How to find the growth drivers in your graduate and adult education portfolio

In some ways, the pandemic and recession are creating entirely new challenges for us to respond to, but some of the questions are still the same. Two that are never far from my mind are, “How can schools better pick which academic programs to invest in?” and “How can they figure out when programs shouldn’t be counted on for growth?” Our researchers have been helping partners tackle these challenges for years, but it gains importance in the face of pandemic-related budget cuts and the search for new revenue sources.

With that in mind, here is a framework for identifying which academic programs in your portfolio have the greatest potential for growth—based on years of EAB research.

Evaluating program viability by labor market and competitive opportunity works best for programs where the labor market matters, meaning students are motivated to enroll by the ultimate career impacts. But that doesn’t mean every graduate and adult program needs this evaluation at once.

When choosing programs to evaluate, consider the decisions you want the results to inform. If you’re looking for the greatest growth potential across your entire portfolio, take your best performers and evaluate which of those are best positioned for further growth. If you need to identify programs to de-prioritize in your portfolio (freeing up resources for growth), focus the assessment on your programs with fewer enrollments. A common way to narrow your focus is to prioritize programs within a single college or discipline.

Evaluate your programs by performance and potential

Start by considering what academic programs have achieved in the past as one indicator of their potential for growth.

Metrics to inform program growth potential

  • Total enrollment
  • Student credit hours taught
  • Degrees conferred
  • Average number of inquiries
  • Conversion rate from inquiry to application
  • Average number of applications and growth in applications
  • Yield rate from acceptance to enrollment

But programs’ past performance isn’t the whole story. You also need to consider external factors like the employer demand for program graduates, or how many other programs may serve the same market. These external factors can create opportunity for growth but can also limit your programs’ future enrollments. At EAB, our researchers assess the viability of graduate and adult programs based on a combination of factors:

  • Historic employer demand, both in relevant job postings’ volume and growth
  • Projected employment for typical job outcomes
  • Historic student completions, both in volume and growth
  • Competition, including the number of other programs as well as the change in competitors over time

Analyzing these factors allows us to score and rank programs on their Labor Market Opportunity and their Competitive Opportunity. These scores evaluate programs relative to one another, so a low score doesn’t necessarily mean a bad opportunity overall, but simply that your portfolio includes programs that offer better opportunities to achieve enrollment and revenue growth.

Evaluate internal and external factors to find your growth drivers

Good historic performancePoor historic performance
Stronger Labor Market, Stronger Competitive OpportunityPotential growth driver
These have likely been, and will continue to be, your growth drivers.
Greatest potential growth driver
These programs have good potential that needs to be unlocked. Next steps like our 360° Program Assessment can diagnose what’s holding programs back from success.
Stronger Labor Market, Lower Competitive OpportunityPotential growth driver
• You’ve succeeded in a relatively difficult market thus far and will need to keep working to stay a step ahead of your competition.

• Institute annual (or more frequent) program reviews that explore competitors’ programs to ensure you maintain your programs’ edge in design and marketing.
• A more difficult competitive landscape has likely inhibited these programs and can continue to do so.

• Improved marketing and ensuring your alignment with this positive labor market outlook may help, but these programs will be more challenging to grow than others in your portfolio.
Weaker Labor Market, Stronger Competitive Opportunity

• These programs have successfully recruited despite relatively worse labor market outlooks.

• Students may interested in these programs for reasons other than career advancement or change. A strong institutional reputation may also buoy program enrollments despite a poor labor market, but you shouldn’t expect these programs to contribute significantly to future enrollment growth.
• A relatively poor labor market has limited these programs’ success, which is unlikely to change despite the good competitive opportunity.

• Determine if these programs could pivot to serve more promising labor market outcomes but may need to accept they’re unlikely to provide the enrollments you need to grow
Weaker Labor Market, Lower Competitive Opportunity
•These relatively poorly situated programs have beaten the odds, often due to factors like strong employer partnerships or prestige in a niche market.

• Aim to maintain good performance, but don’t expect these programs to generate significantly more enrollments than they already do.
• Programs with external constraints and poor past performance aren’t likely to drive your future growth.

• These programs may still contribute to your mission or other strategic priorities, but if they don’t you may want to explore program discontinuance.

Beyond other programs’ performance trends, you’ll also want to know how students’ program preferences are evolving. High school students’ attitudes towards majors can help you anticipate future trends: are any subjects up-and-coming? Has interest started to decline in any particular field? You can pair statewide trends with larger behavioral shifts to understand which successful programs should remain so, and which programs will need to overcome worsening student perceptions.

Beyond the labor market and competitive landscape, other external factors to consider when analyzing programs’ growth potential include things like:

  • The concentration of degree conferrals at top competitors: In some winner-take-all markets, a small number of competitors award an overwhelming share of the degrees. Smaller programs will struggle to outcompete these dominant offerings. This comes up in fields like graduate cybersecurity.
  • Accreditation standards that constrain growth: Requirements like clinical experiences may prove hard to deliver at scale, preventing program growth despite student demand. We often see this in fields like nursing.

Invest in growth drivers and deprioritize programs with low growth potential as needed

Once you know which programs are poised for growth, ensure they are equipped for that growth:

  • Align program to market needs by emphasizing in-demand coursework and preparation for valuable careers, which you can identify through further market research
  • Optimize curricular maps and faculty resources for growth, considering if the faculty resources and course sequencing enable student completion as well as offer the flexibility adult students need
  • Ensure prospective students know about your program and its value through a robust adult learner recruitment strategy

Budgets may require reallocating funding from underperforming programs to those with growth potential. Ensure you’re prepared for this by increasing resource flexibility and minimizing disruption beforehand.

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