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Avoid these four graduate, online, and adult program design mistakes

May 13, 2020

As a graduate school dean, I always looked forward to finally launching a new academic program after months or years of research and planning. But not every program launch lived up to our expectations. I still remember the disappointment I felt when one program we’d worked hard to develop fell short of our enrollment and revenue goals. As I was reminded then, even the best program ideas can fail if they are not developed with an eye to market conditions and student preferences.

As concerns about meeting enrollment and revenue goals grow in light of COVID-19, the stakes to develop market-ready programs have never been higher. But too often, the program design choices we make end up impeding enrollment growth. Here are four common pitfalls of graduate, adult, and online program development—and what you can do to avoid them.

1. Your program isn’t built based on employer demand and existing strengths

It’s not groundbreaking to suggest that colleges and universities should analyze their local and regional labor markets prior to launching a new program. But many of the enrollment leaders I’ve spoken with can’t devote staff time and resources to the rigorous labor market analysis necessary to determine employer demand for a new program.

Beyond employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and others, our researchers recommend analyzing changes in local and regional job postings, the skills employers seek most, and which employers are listing the most job postings to gauge demand for a program. While the longer-term impact of COVID-19 remains to be seen, labor market data is still a valuable input when launching a new program. Our researchers will continue to analyze how employer demand across industries is shifting and how the crisis could impact your programs for working professionals.


In addition to labor market demand, consider faculty strengths, existing resources, and your institution’s brand and mission when developing new programs. And identify which of your resources and capabilities are the most unique and will help your program stand apart from growing competition.

Recommendation: Conduct rigorous labor market data assessments, but don’t forget about internal strengths. Include labor market data in your program marketing materials to show students how your program can help them achieve their career goals.

2. Program features aren’t rigorously assessed in comparison to competitors’ offerings

As with labor market data, we’ve found most institutions analyze their immediate competitors’ program portfolios to see if their new program would face competition and if so, how their program might stack up. But it’s not enough to consider just your immediate competitors when developing a new program. Today’s market is becoming increasingly national, and institutions have to think not only about nearby competitors but also competitors across the country.

For example, our researchers analyzed enrollment data from exclusively online graduate students and found 56% of those students attend an out-of-state institution, suggesting that students are considering institutions near and far when making an enrollment decision.

Institutions must also consider which fields are dominated by large players and might not have room for a new program. Our researchers have found some master’s programs—such as cybersecurity and public health—have become winner-take-all markets in which large programs control most of the market share and most other programs stay small. If your goal is to grow enrollments, those programs are probably not your best bet.

Recommendation: Compare your potential new program against programs offered at local, regional, and even national competitors. Avoid creating new programs in fields swamped by large players.

3. Program features are misaligned with adult learners’ preferences and lifestyles

Once you’ve decided on a mix of local, regional, and national competitors’ programs, it can be helpful to compare those programs against your own as if you were a student comparing programs. As competition grows, students can search and shop for programs until they find one that meets their needs and lifestyles.


We’ve found adult learners prioritize flexibility, speed to completion, and affordability when selecting a program, so keep those three factors in mind when designing your program. To meet students’ needs for flexibility, compare the number of start dates and modality options you offer against your competitors’ programs. If your program does not offer multiple entry points, for example, you risk losing students to a program that can better accommodate their schedule. The same can be said of a program that takes much longer to complete or is significantly more expensive than your competitors’ programs.

And finally, consider how your admissions requirements could deter students from learning more about your program. Test requirements or too many required letters of recommendation—especially if not required by your competitors—may limit the number of students who apply to your program.

Recommendation: Consider adult learners’ needs and preferences in all stages of program development, from designing curriculum to determining admissions requirements.

4. Curricular maps and faculty resources are not optimized for growth

No program can succeed in the long term unless the curriculum is scalable. First, consider if your faculty and instructional resources can support the curriculum model you’ve designed. You’ll also want to consider if the curriculum model aligns with your program outcomes and sequencing.


Because adult learners seek flexibility from their academic programs, a curriculum that includes opportunities for customization (such as electives) will go a long way in generating enrollments. Including information about course availability and scheduling on your program webpage will also help speak to students’ interest in speed to completion.

Recommendation: Ensure your curriculum model is scalable, sustainable, and provides the flexibility and speed to completion adult learners seek.

The decisions we make when designing a new program often require us to challenge standard operating procedure. Perhaps the most challenging part of designing a new program is getting the right stakeholders to come together and challenge the way you’ve designed programs previously. You might not gain rapid consensus for each of these design ideas—but the more of them you can incorporate into your programs, the more success you will have when recruiting prospective students.

Interested in a program design workshop for your team?

Our program design workshops bring stakeholders together from across your institution to discuss how you can design programs to support enrollment growth. Contact us for more information about how we can bring a complimentary virtual program design workshop to your team.

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