Finding Student Fit: Why Responding to Their Interests is Essential

It’s an understatement to say that 2020 has been a challenging year for higher education. Universities are either suspending or eliminating degree programs in droves. Transfer student enrollment has declined. Institutional recruitment has gone virtual. And the financial impact of the pandemic for higher education is still to be determined.

In the midst of all of this disruption, students—understandably—are becoming increasingly selective with how they choose both a major and a school.

Creating majors, minors, and other academic programs that correlate with student interests has always been an intricate process for institutions. Matching students up with degrees is an ongoing process. It requires analysis that is both quantitative and qualitative. The rapidity of change means that programmatic offerings need to be nimble, relevant, and functional.

Always Innovating and Assessing

Majors that might have been innovative or niche in years past may no longer be applicable for today’s student. From gauging the popularity of majors to the number of graduates a program produces, schools require a dashboard of data to evaluate and measure success.

Additionally, institutions can use data from a variety of external sources including student surveys, the National Student Clearinghouse, and career reports. LinkedIn, the professional social network for employees and employers, frequently posts content like the Emerging Jobs Report or the Top Startups list which are great resources for keeping informed on the latest job trends. For example, the latest version of the emerging jobs report showcases that healthcare jobs were well-placed in top spots and that fields like data science, artificial intelligence (AI), and sales were still going strong. 

While external data points and sector-specific analysis can be valuable assets in making internal programmatic decisions, it’s important to note that these factors should be used in conjunction with insights that have been gathered internally.

Given the challenges stated at the beginning of this post, it’s going to be critical that schools stick to using a blend of internal and external data points for adding new academic programs. For example, creating new majors based on perception and campus politics can lead to low enrollments and few graduates. In fact, nearly half of college academic programs produce 10 or fewer graduates per year which in turn accounts for less than 10% of all degrees.

Even with so many underperforming programs nationwide, colleges continue a makeshift trial and error process, which has resulted in almost half of all institutions creating new academic programs based on perceived demand in the past 5 years. 

Clearly, a lot of what’s happened has been due to the ever-present need to grow enrollments. And, with enrollment numbers on the decline for some institutions, new programs can mean a last-ditch attempt to garner attention and admitted students. However, adding new programs without evaluating the viability of existing programs can lead to dissatisfaction as degree tracks shift and students are displaced from their pre-existing course progression.

The impact of adding or sunsetting programs are felt collectively by students, faculty, and admission officers. This necessitates the need for ongoing collection of insights to create space for discussion, transparency, and accountability.

Tracking Student Interests and Decisions

One way to ensure that student interests are in alignment with institutional offerings is to analyze the college planning process at the individual student level to better understand the majors and programs they’re searching for. Whatever the resource that students use during their college search, the insights that they provide offers a well-rounded look into the criteria that lead to enrollment. Diving into these data points will allow for an informed process that can help with firming up both existing and new degree programs.

Managing Change

Once data has been collected and analyzed, change is the next step in the process of responding to student interests. Collaboration between leaders in academic affairs and admission is key to a measured approach to creating programs based on a milestone-focused approach. With a stepped progression, everyone benefits as changes are brought forward with clear rationales and purpose. This will allow for the filling of academic gaps that intersect with the needs of the marketplace for both the near-term and the foreseeable future. 

The Student-Centric Recruitment Framework

This post is the second in a series of six principles that will assist higher education institutions as they navigate the future of student recruitment. The next blog post will be about how colleges prepare for demographic shifts. For more student-centric recruitment strategies, download the framework.

Topics Higher Ed

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