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The success rate for new academic programs at colleges and universities depends more on the type of institution launching them than whether a program is in the sciences or humanities, according to a new report identifying what sorts of programs fare better when it comes to growth.
Researchers with Lightcast, a labor market analytics firm, found four-year public universities and larger institutions, whether public or private, are more likely to see new degree programs prosper, according to an analysis of federal data on degree conferrals. The researchers defined a program as failed if it stopped producing graduates within five years of its creation, and according to their report, master’s programs failed at a lower rate than bachelor’s or associate degree programs.
At stake is an institution’s financial investment in a new program and potentially the career outcomes of students, researchers said. Over all, they described “similar numbers of growing and failing programs” and suggested that lowering the failure rate “would be a huge step forward for higher education.”
As part of the analysis, researchers looked at whether humanities programs were less likely to grow relative to programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. They concluded that “humanities programs in general do not fail significantly more than STEM programs, meaning that the door to success is open to everyone.”
The study listed a failure rate of 39.4 percent for 236 new programs for engineering, engineering-related technologies and technicians, similar to a 39.1 percent failure rate for 156 new programs in the liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities. The report’s authors concluded that “successful and unsuccessful programs are widely distributed across fields of study.”
“What we’re trying to say is, you can’t just assume that because it’s a STEM program, it will necessarily succeed, right? Or, if it’s a social science program, it will necessarily fail, right?” said Rucha Vankudre, a senior economist with Lightcast and report co-author. “It really comes down to the program itself, and even things like the geography you’re in … what are the main businesses around you.”
The report noted the importance of considering career outcomes for students in new programs, using federal census and education data on underemployment rates in certain fields to point out how some graduates end up in careers where their bachelor’s degree isn’t required. It also emphasized the importance of how programs are developed.
“The challenge is to learn from which past programs have paid off and which have not, then use that information to develop future programs with a higher likelihood of producing reliable results and prosperity for schools, students, and communities,” the report stated. Authors also described how a successful new program “can represent new fields of human knowledge, address emerging social concerns, and propel graduates into fast-developing career fields.”
The report stated that there’s “a growth opportunity for institutions who can better align student interest with success in the job market after graduation.”
It’s important, however, to consider the full nature of the labor market rather than rely on generalizations, Vankudre said.
Technology companies have “really been dominant in the news,” which might lead colleges to focus on creating career paths for STEM majors. But, “when you really stop and think about it, our economy is quite diverse,” Vankudre said.
The finding that humanities and STEM programs had similar failure rates is “contrary to conventional wisdom,” the report said.
An Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university provosts published earlier this month found about 75 percent agreeing that politicians and the institution’s board members are prioritizing STEM and professional programs over those that support general education.
Scott Muir, director of undergraduate initiatives for the National Humanities Alliance, which promotes the value of studying the humanities, described challenges faced by deans and faculty members trying to launch new programs.
“While we do hear repeatedly that many upper administrators are hesitant to invest in these efforts, we see exceptions where humanities faculty have received a green light and financial support from upper administrators and have subsequently launched very successful programs,” Muir said in an email.
Digging Into the Data
Using federal education data, Lightcast researchers found growth at 2,274 out of 8,007 new programs studied from 2016–17 through 2021, for a success rate of 28.4 percent.
The report defined a new academic program as growing if it had both a minimum of 10 graduates in at least one year and had grown its number of graduates by at least 50 percent.
A higher education researcher not involved in writing the report said the growth standard used for the report might not be appropriate for every academic program.
Lisa Lattuca, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, said some undergraduate programs may be approved with an expectation of a slow ramp-up to better recruit new students rather than transfers. Or, a professional program may have capacity limits related to the availability of placements for internships, for example, she said.
“There’s a whole bunch of scenarios I can think of where the enrollment target matters, and where growth of 50 percent isn’t actually what you want or what happens,” Lattuca said.
Vankudre said the methodology of reviewing federal data on degree conferrals should capture the large majority of new academic degree programs, but a few programs may be missing, in part because data collection depends on institutions voluntarily reporting information.
Whatever the limitations, Vankudre said the analysis of new degree programs “captures enough that the trends should be representative.” But it is not always easy to suss out some information, she said.
The report stated that public universities and large institutions have new programs that are faring better “likely because those schools have greater resources or because their student populations are larger, or some combination of the two.”
The researchers found that public four-year universities had a success rate of about 37 percent for their new academic programs. It also noted a success rate of 36.4 percent for institutions with 5,001 or more graduates in 2016.
Vankudre said it was difficult to determine whether an institution’s size or status as public had a greater effect.
“We don’t really have enough sample size to be able to pull it apart,” she said.
Researchers counted 712 out of 2,068 master’s programs as showing growth, for a success rate of 34.4 percent, ahead of the 29.2 percent success rate for 3,200 new bachelor’s programs and a 25.4 percent success rate for 2,194 associate degree programs. Master’s degree programs failed at a rate of 26 percent, compared to 31.4 percent of bachelor’s degree programs and 31.7 percent of associate degree programs.
Vankudre said those numbers may reflect how the programs serve different types of students.
“The odds of them sticking through the master’s degree and being able to complete it are going to be higher than what you see at some of the lower levels,” she said.
The report also noted that online programs had a lower failure rate than in-person offerings. Out of 1,918 new online programs, 479, or 25 percent, failed. In a total of 6,089 new in-person programs, 1,894 failed, or 31.1 percent, failed.
The researchers did not directly refer to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on new programs. But Lattuca said that moving forward, “it appears online programs may be added more and more, especially after the pandemic.”
Of the new programs that failed, researchers found that 2,373 folded after producing 33,688 graduates before reaching zero conferrals, for an average of “around three degrees per program per year.”
The report stated that graduates of those programs “may now face an uphill battle looking for a job armed with a degree representing a program that no longer exists—or one that employers may not be familiar with.”
Other Viewpoints on Success, Failure
As far as why programs at public universities in particular might fare better, Vankudre said that because public colleges and universities rely on government funding, “sometimes they have to be a bit more careful in what they propose.” Vankudre acknowledged differing standards for academic program growth, including viability standards set by state higher education authorities whose purview includes the approval of new academic programs.
In the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board completed a review of 131 proposed new academic degree programs, approving 124. Institutions opted to withdraw seven program proposals.
“Denials of programs are rare,” with the Texas coordinating board’s staff working with an institution to improve proposals “or determine if they should be withdrawn,” coordinating board spokesman Mike Eddleman said in an email.
In Arkansas, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board last year heard information about whether recently launched academic programs were considered “on track” toward viability.
The standard in Arkansas is 18 graduates over five years for most bachelor’s degree programs, but the number goes down to 12 for some bachelor’s degree programs and also for master’s programs. For most associate degree programs, the standard in Arkansas is 18 graduates required over a three-year period.
Members of the Arkansas coordinating board were concerned after hearing that 100 out of 179 new degree and certificate programs approved in recent years were on track to meet the viability standard.
“If you fail this many times, that’s substantial,” said Andy McNeill, the chief executive officer of an environmental services company who was appointed to the board by the state’s governor.
But students, faculty and alumni can find value in keeping a degree program even if it has few graduates, as has been the case with the University of Central Arkansas’ African and African American studies bachelor’s degree program.
Television news outlet THV11 reported that faculty members and others wrote a letter to administrators in support of keeping the program, the only such stand-alone bachelor’s degree program in the state. The letter pointed out how “the elimination of the major harms the goals outlined in UCA’s Diversity Strategic Plan to pursue and retain a diversified student body, faculty, and staff,” the television station reported.
The university awarded one bachelor’s degree in African and African American studies in fall 2022, a university spokeswoman said. Discussions are still ongoing about the future of the program, which was approved as a bachelor’s degree program in 2004 on a campus where about 16 percent of all undergraduates are Black, according to federal data.
“A working group was convened in Spring of 2022. The group met throughout the summer and fall of 2022. Currently, the conversation is continuing in the Department of History, the home department for the degree,” University of Central Arkansas spokeswoman Fredricka Sharkey said in an email.
Such programs have seen relatively low enrollments in other states, as well, leading to talk of eliminating them. But at least one large public university, Louisiana State University, has recently launched a bachelor’s degree program after the state Board of Regents granted approval in 2021.
Lattuca, of the University of Michigan, said university leaders must think about adding new programs to best serve their students.
“The world changes, and higher education often gets criticized for not changing with it,” she said.
University administrators must also consider whether creating new programs will improve their institutions’ finances.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of institutions that can afford not to think about that, so I think that’s always a consideration, when they expect to be revenue positive” with a new program, Lattuca said.
She noted that a review leading up to a launch may take two years.
The report did not say whether recruitment efforts for new programs can make a difference in the success of the program, but a former enrollment administrator said marketing does matter.
“My experience, for the most part, is that marketing does play a crucial role in new academic program success,” Perry Rettig, a professor of education and a former vice president for enrollment management and student affairs at Piedmont University in Georgia, said in an email.
New programs often “attempt to fill niche markets,” Rettig said.
“The overhead costs to operate new programs make it difficult to sustain more than a couple of years, so focused recruitment efforts to immediately fill seats [are] important in today’s reality,” Rettig said.