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If Enrollment Falls Short, Cutting or Adding Programs Is No Quick Fix

If your institution missed its enrollment and revenue goals this fall (or for the last two or three falls), an obvious question pops to mind: What are you going to do about it?

The Chronicle’s recent survey of small colleges and comprehensive universities, which asked whether they met their enrollment and revenue goals in September, also polled institutions on what their responses might be in case of a shortfall.

To no surprise, making changes in enrollment-management practices and marketing strategies ended up being the most popular fixes. Perhaps admirably—since colleges are major employers in any given community—layoffs were among the least-popular solutions. No one likes to let people go.

But when David W. Strauss, a principal with the Art & Science Group, which does market research and strategic consulting for colleges, looked at the data, he was struck: Many institutions—63 percent of small private colleges and 54 percent of comprehensive colleges—said they would start new programs to attract students. Another significant chunk—24 percent of private colleges and 39 percent of state colleges—said they would consider eliminating low-enrollment programs to deal with shortfalls in students and revenue.

If administrators see those options as quick fixes, Mr. Strauss is concerned. “Schools don’t typically start programs quickly or eliminate them at all—and if they do, it’s not quickly,” he said.

Moreover, he said, starting new programs is not a solution all by itself. “That is not a way to reposition the institution,” he said. “It is a way to make it possible for the institution to explore an additional stream of students.”

In other words, a liberal-arts college might start a business program. That might put the college on the radar of students who wanted to major in business, but it doesn’t fundamentally change what that college is all about.

“That is an important distinction because a lot of people, particularly in academic administration, will see that as the answer,” Mr. Strauss said. “It may be part of an answer, but it is seldom the whole thing. It assumes that the world wants us, and we just need to make ourselves available to a larger portion of that world.”

Colleges that struggle with enrollment—and, therefore, revenue—instead need to look at some fundamentals, Mr. Strauss said: How do professors at the college teach, and does that need to change? What is it like to be a student there, and what could improve that experience? Perhaps most important, what are the outcomes?

As for eliminating programs, that might be part of a strategy—but one that has to be carefully considered, not as a swift reaction to one bad year. In the 1980s, Mr. Strauss said, Duke University eliminated some programs during a recession. But it did that in an effort to reposition the institution from a highly respected regional institution to one of national prominence.

Given the way that colleges can collaborate now—by linking up programs and services regionally, or through the Internet—cutting a low-enrolled program might not be as painful as it once was. But for institutions that struggle year after year, Mr. Strauss said, “these are questions that need to be on the table.”

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