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Institutions Should Link Program Reviews to Strategic Plans

Campus marketing practitioners should be involved in academic program review and planning.

February 7, 2017

Institutional priorities regarding academic program reviews and degree program planning are arguably more mission-critical to successful higher ed marketing than any media plan or website strategy.

Yet, in a recent survey of chief academic officers (CAOs), we learned that academic program reviews were not incorporated into their institution’s strategic or long-range planning. When asked whether they were, the most frequent answers were, "no," "not yet," or "that's a good idea, but how do we do it?"

Think about that. If a college or university wants to offer an academic degree program for which there is limited demonstrated market demand, or a program that is performing below institutionally imposed standards to remain competitive for new students, no amount of marketing can "create" sufficient demand to justify the investment of time, talent and treasure required to sustain a robust program. For this reason, campus marketing practitioners are well advised to be tuned in, if not intimately involved, in institutional strategic planning efforts which should address academic program review and planning, among a host of other issues.

Surprisingly, responses collected during candid interviews with a random sampling of chief academic officers (CAOs) at independent colleges and universities across the country suggest there is only moderate integration or alignment of standard academic program reviews and planning with institutional strategic planning efforts.

These insights come from more than 60 interviews conducted with CAOs from institutions that are members of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). They were interviewed from November 2014 to January 2015 as part of a research project exploring linkages between academic program review and institutional strategic planning processes funded by Stamats, Inc.

Among the findings we expected were details of multi-layered reviews completed by academic departments on five- to seven-year cycles. These reviews generally focus on assessment data of program-specific learning outcomes goals, which respond to specific standards set by regional accrediting agencies.

Four things we learned about the academic program review and planning processes on many campuses across the nation:

1. Academic program reviews are conducted on a five-to seven-year cycle, whereas strategic planning efforts typically encompass a longer time frame and address broader goals beyond academic programs.

2. Data collected for academic program reviews are not routinely integrated into the broader institutional strategic planning process, except when they are cited as support as evidence of academic excellence or from a budget perspective when it becomes necessary to control instructional costs by reducing the number of programs offerings, or to make room for new programs.

3. Departmental accountability for implementing feedback collected during academic program assessments is often not well-documented.

4. There is little connection, if any, between the results of reviews for established degree programs and the development and introduction of new programs, which often come via the strategic planning process.

As campus-based marketers advance the reality that “marketing” practice is not simply limited to the task of promotion—that consideration of product, price and place (distribution) are just as integral—engage your academic program leaders with questions like:

• What's the linkage on our campus between academic program review and strategic planning?

• What steps could be taken to firm up that link?

• How might this “firming up” happen on our campus?

• How should our marketing operation be appropriately engaged in the process?

• What's standing in the way of connecting the dots on our campus?

Dr. Virginia (Ginny) Coombs began her 39-year career as a faculty member in Germanic Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, held provost and CAO positions at public and private institutions, and served as VP for Annual Programs with the Council of Independent Colleges. She now volunteers in the Student Advocate Program at Indiana University-Bloomington and works as an independent consultant in academic program planning and assessment.

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