To remain financially sustainable alongside ever-present cost and enrolment pressures, universities must better manage a balanced campus programme portfolio that advances the institutional mission, responds to market demands, and contributes to the bottom line. To this end, campus leaders are already beginning to think more critically about the programmes that they launch, knowing that the “if we build it, they will come” days are over.
But it’s not just new programmes that must present a clear value proposition to warrant continued investment. Unchecked academic proliferation without sufficient alignment to student demand and market needs has also led to significant consequences, both in terms of fixed costs (e.g., instructor salaries, space, impact on central resources) and hidden, “soft” costs (e.g., underutilised teaching capacity, under-enrolled niche classes, redundant administrative support).
Majority of students concentrated in a handful of programmes
The data below from EAB’s Academic Performance Solutions shows that many institutions maintain a glut of programmes with few graduates. Cutting a blank check to these low-revenue programmes is no longer feasible. Yet, unlike the enthusiasm generated by launching new programmes, efforts to re-evaluate existing offerings frequently trigger pushback. Absent an effective strategy to review and realign the academic programme portfolio, institutions risk the gradual depletion of their financial and reputational resources.
EAB’s Academic Performance Solutions data shows that almost 70% of students are concentrated in the top two deciles of most popular programmes at their respective institutions (n=51)
In need of a new approach
EAB endorses a holistic approach to academic programme review that fosters a continuous improvement mindset, rather than relying on politically difficult one-off efforts. Regular programme assessments identify struggling programmes early. Ideally, these interventions will translate to improvements. However, when revitalisation is not successful, this method also eases the path toward downsizing or discontinuance. These decisions are never easy—and only with careful planning and communication can campuses expect to realise savings and reinvest resources into growth areas.
Four imperatives to guide campus leaders
Four imperatives, listed below, guide campuses in better managing the programme portfolio. While the locus of decision-making will differ from campus to campus, academic and business leaders alike must work together to ensure the long-term health of the academic programme portfolio.
Assemble the right data for regular programme health and performance conversations
Provide watch-list programmes structured guidance and a set period of time to improve
Increase resource flexibility in parallel to programme redesign efforts
Ensure programme discontinuance minimises stakeholder disruption and maximises cost savings