New programs aren’t paying off for all colleges: report

Dive Brief:

  • Many of the academic programs colleges have added in recent years don’t produce many graduates down the road, according to a new analysis by Burning Glass Technologies.

  • The labor market analytics firm found that of programs that first graduated students in the 2012-13 and 2013-2014 school years, about 30% didn’t have a single graduate in 2018. Burning Glass notes those programs had relatively few graduates in that roughly five-year period.

  • As the pandemic ravages many institutions’ budgets, deciding which degrees to maintain and which to add will be ever more important. 

Dive Insight:

Burning Glass examined more than 10,500 programs that graduated their first cohorts in 2013 and 2014. It found that about half of those programs had fewer than five graduates in 2018.

The success of these programs varied by type of institution. 

Two out every five new programs at two- and four-year for-profit colleges had no graduates in 2018, “the sector of higher education that should be the most likely to expect a strict return on investment for their operations,” the firm’s report states. The for-profit sector has come under fire for poor student outcomes, leading to a crackdown by the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, only about a quarter of public two- and four-year institutions’ programs, and a third of private nonprofit institutions’, saw no graduates in 2018. But as Burning Glass notes, this is not necessarily a measure of success. About half of four-year public schools’ programs, and two-thirds of four-year nonprofit private colleges, had 10 or fewer graduates in 2018.

A tepid program can cost colleges big. Burning Glass determined that programs cost at minimum the equivalent of two to three faculty members with salary and benefits, a classroom space, curriculum design and marketing. This can add up to programs costing between $350,000 to $500,000 per year, based on the firm’s research. But the startup costs can be higher for programs requiring specific equipment or training spaces, such as those for nursing or health sciences. 

Burning Glass found that multi/interdisciplinary studies and natural resources programs at four-year publics were the least likely to have no graduates in 2018. Multi/interdisciplinary studies and business-related programs were the least likely to not have graduates that year at four-year nonprofit privates. 

Colleges in recent years have been attempting to boost enrollment by adding nontraditional programs, though they can be poorly conceived. In some cases, however, they do benefit institutions. Some colleges created one-off, novel courses that do not require much cost or manpower. 

The firm recommends that before starting a new program, colleges figure out what employers need. Career-oriented courses, for instance “must hit the mark in terms of providing valuable, up-to-date job skills,” the report states.

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