How to Dislodge Course and Program Proliferation

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May 5, 2020

Dislodging Events A Potential Curb on Course and Program Proliferation

Steve Probst’s recent blog on curricular efficiency reminded me how serious the course and Dense forestprogram proliferation problem has become for America’s colleges and universities. For example, my forthcoming book reports that:

“Many programs persist beyond what should have been their sell-by dates. In one dataset reported by Bob Zemsky, for example, a daunting 48 percent of programs turned out ten or fewer graduates per year and collectively accounted for only 7 percent of all degrees granted . Bob puts the matter succinctly: “We [colleges] give students what they want. Most colleges can’t afford to do so without understanding why they can’t.” This doesn’t mean all low-enrollment programs should go on trial, but campuses do need serious and well-informed conversations on the matter” (p. 6).

My purpose here is to show how your response to the current coronavirus crisis can dislodge the proliferation of both courses and programs. Dislodging events overcome entrenched thinking and special interests, and thus achieve desirable transformations that otherwise would be impossible.

Program proliferation begets course proliferation because each program requires specialized courses, even if the number of enrolled students is small. Faculty preferences also drive course proliferation as professors strive to teach ever-more specialized material in their disciplines. I welcomed small and specialized classes when I worked as a professor because they effectively lightened my teaching load. (Small courses in the professor’s specialty require little preparation, are easy to teach and grade, and often stimulate the teacher’s thinking as well as that of the students.) This chart, with its relatively large numbers of small cases, shows a not-atypical degree of course proliferation. Small classes aren’t bad in and of themselves but offering lots of them should require justification in terms of academic benefits.

The need for such justification becomes even more apparent when one examines the effects of course proliferation on contribution margins. The following chart shows that, while not all small courses lose money, many of them do—and in substantial amounts. Contribution margins are just one factor to consider, but charts like these can point the way toward improving curricular efficiency. The much less desirable alternative is to use rules of thumb like “cut all courses or programs with fewer than five students.” (Bob Atkins warned against this in his recent blog.) Combining data on the character of teaching activity (e.g., class sizes) with economic data (revenue, cost, and margin) provides a good basis for stimulating focused conversations about curricular efficiency among academic administrators and faculty

These conversations are difficult under normal circumstances, but it’s easier in times of crisis. Indeed, less-than-essential courses are reservoirs of cost-cutting potential when one must close a looming budget gap. But eliminating a course doesn’t automatically yield up the savings. That requires the redeployment or downsizing of resources like faculty lines and adjunct contracts. Reducing the number of adjuncts usually isn’t a problem (except, of course, for the adjuncts) but it’s hard to cut faculty lines quickly. Indeed, forcing too many immediate faculty cuts may prove problematic as the institution emerges from the COVID crisis and begins to plan for the future.

A Framework for Decision Making in this time of COVID

The following Decision Framework should prove helpful in coping with the immediate COVID crisis and then plotting the path back toward financial sustainability. “Act Now” reflects the immediate action required to staunch the COVID-induced flood of red ink; “Act Soon” focuses on strategy for the post-COVID world. Solving these problems requires revenue growth as well as cost reduction. This is consistent with the business maxim, “You can’t cut your way to success.” Colleges and Universities have included both revenue and cost in their gap-closing strategies at least since the 1970s when I began working in the area. I need to remind everyone, however, that all proposals for boosting revenue should be firmly grounded. Vague aspirational actions like “boost fundraising by “X” percent” can be extremely dangerous in times of pressing fiscal problems.

Decision Making Chart

Overnight, thousands of schools moved courses online, as called out in the first bullet of Act Now. This massive online experience will spur substantial changes in the post-COVID period, a matter that will loom large in the Act Soon analysis. The actions called out in the second bullet will become relevant as soon as students return to campus. They describe tried and true approaches for cost-cutting within the existing curricular structure and mix of teaching methods.

Much can be accomplished using these approaches, especially in schools where a lack of focus on teaching cost has allowed slack to accumulate over time. It seems apparent, however, that the COVID crisis is too large to allow adaptation within the existing structural bounds. Pruning the course catalog is a way to override these structures with immediate effect: courses can be removed from the curriculum with relatively little notice providing the critical requirements for student progress are maintained. The data cited earlier suggest there is considerable potential for savings in this area.

Achieving significant monetary savings usually must await the expiration of adjunct and untenured faculty contracts, but the actions described above can pave the way for negative renewal actions. Declaring financial exigency and canceling tenure contracts always is a possibility, but not one that most institutions wish to contemplate. There is another way to monetize excess faculty capacity, however, and it’s one that is particularly suited for today’s times.

The Decision Framework’s lower left-hand cell calls for offering new short programs or courses that will produce near-term revenue. Many of these will be online offerings to specialized markets, some reflecting needs created by the coronavirus and others responding to demand from people with free time or emergent needs to upgrade their skills. The key takeaway is that Bonsai Treefaculty capacity freed up by curricular pruning, and perhaps also by boosting class sizes and teaching loads, can be used to create and teach new programs and courses. The massive infusion of online experience caused by today’s virtual teaching regimens makes rapid moves in this area more feasible then would have been possible even six months ago. Bob Atkins’ most recent blog describes the data used to track shifts in student demand and employment caused by the pandemic.

The actions in the Decision Framework’s right-hand column will take more than a few months to implement, but it is not too soon to begin thinking about them. Forthcoming blogs will describe data and analyses to help with this task. If you would like to learn more about academic cost reduction please join me on May 13th at 2 PM for a 30 minute webinar on Closing the Gap. To register click here: Closing the Gap Part 1

Gray Associates

Gray Associates, Inc. provides the best available data, software, and facilitated processes to help higher education institutions make high-stakes decisions regarding academic programs, pricing, and locations.

About Gray DI

Gray DI provides data, software and facilitated processes that power higher-education decisions. Our data and AI insights inform program choices, optimize finances, and fuel growth in a challenging market – one data-informed decision at a time.

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