Drawing on Eduventures’ 20-plus years of experience helping universities develop, launch, and assess academic programs, the Program Spotlight Series of Wake-Up Calls calls attention to best practices in program development.
Consider this: in 2016, there were 236,000 academic programs offered by 6,700 title IV eligible institutions of higher education in the U.S. That is an increase of 34,500 academic programs since 2012, or one new program per institution per year, not counting program closures.
Program demand assessment has been a longstanding part of Eduventures’ research portfolio, allowing us to keep a finger on the pulse of programmatic trends. Recently, we noticed an increase in requests around special focus programs.
Of course, there are several highly specialized programs that are successful on a large scale—think of cybersecurity, for instance, which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. These are not the types of programs under consideration here. Today, we consider the venture into uncharted program territory. The common denominator is usually a small, or even non-existent, market.
Are these kinds of niche programs a good idea?
Those considering niche offerings are in good company. Penn State’s World Campus offers degrees in Turfgrass Science and Management. Plymouth State University utilizes its access to the rivers, lakes, and mountains of New Hampshire to train undergraduate students in the discipline of Adventure Education. At Arizona State University, you may even pursue doctoral level studies in the interdisciplinary field of Animal Behavior.
These programs are often sub-areas of broader academic fields otherwise offered as a concentration within a more generalized program. Sometimes multidisciplinary, we consider them niche because they are specialized.
If you build it, will they come?
How will you know whether your faculty’s proposal to add a master’s program in equestrian marketing will be a viable endeavor for your institution? In short, you won’t know until you try. In many cases, you will be embarking into an emerging market, so there won’t be much historical data to learn from.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) revises its Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) codes once a decade, and so conferrals in emerging markets are reported to whichever code the institution deems the best fit. Likely, reported conferrals will end up in the vague “other” categories, which serve as receptacles for academic programs not neatly aligned with the current classification categories.
So, while there may not be viability indicators specific to programs like equestrian marketing, we can, however, learn about niche program performance in general by examining historic conferral trends in some of the highly specialized CIP categories. Let’s look at some examples of niche categories compared to one of the more mainstream categories in related programmatic areas. To account for provider growth in these areas, we will review the average conferral per provider.
Example 1: Casino Management vs. Hospitality Management
Conferrals per provider in hospitality management have steadily grown since 2004. In contrast, conferrals in casino management follow a rather erratic pattern, with very small conferral numbers per provider. This is not a function of a single institution experiencing recruiting issues for this particular program. Fifteen institutions reported a total of 34 completions in casino management in 2016.
From this we can conclude that student interest in casino management is low and fluctuating. Comparing the scale of these two program categories, it becomes evident that students appear to favor a more general program that can be applied to a number of different employment settings, over a highly specialized one.
Example 2: Mechanical Engineering vs. Forest Engineering
Another example can be found in the field of engineering. With the focus on STEM education now starting as early as pre-school, one might expect engineering conferrals to follow a positive growth trend across all specialty areas. This trend certainly can be seen for the mainstream area of mechanical engineering.
But when we look at forest engineering, which trains aspiring engineers to aide in forest management, timber production, and forest logistics systems, we once more see fluctuating student demand. In this particular case, conferrals were shared by two reporting institutions across three degree levels. Neither provider is likely to rely on these programs for revenue generation.
Key Questions You Should Ask Yourself
While every new program launch bears some inherent risk, the potential success of entering a small, highly specialized market is particularly unpredictable. Despite plentiful historical data like this, we are not suggesting that you steer clear of niche programs in general. Rather, we advise you to carefully examine your motivations and rationale for entering these high-risk markets. We identified three key questions you should ask yourself:
1. Does the proposed program play to your institution’s strengths and reputation in the market?
How will your proposed niche program fit into your institution’s mission and identity? Let’s revisit that master’s in equestrian marketing. Maybe your institution is a recognized leader in equine studies with a renowned equestrian center. Maybe you are also located in Louisville, Kentucky and have close ties to the Kentucky Derby where many of your graduates find employment. In this case, considering a master’s program in equestrian marketing may not seem so far-fetched.
If the proposed program matches your school’s reputation and leverages existing industry partnerships, this may attract applicants and create favorable student outcomes. Continuous student interest will remain a wild card, but at the very least, you are well-positioned to succeed.
2. Will the investment in this program be low due to already existing resources?
To further spin our equestrian example, let’s assume that part of your already successful equine studies program is dedicated to the business side of this field. Chances are, your faculty are already teaching courses in equestrian marketing. Between this program and the marketing program in your business school, you could easily design the curriculum for your proposed program and secure the faculty to teach it. With this relatively low investment, this program may still be viable even if enrollments were small.
You may also consider whether you will be able to sustain this program for the benefit of your students and graduates—alumni do not take kindly to having a degree from an unknown program that only existed briefly on their resume.
3. Do you need this program to counter decreasing enrollments?
Sometimes, the motivation to propose a niche program is driven by the need to boost enrollment. Maybe you are running out of ideas for conventional program areas that are not already saturated by competitors. Perhaps faculty are worried about their jobs amidst declining enrollment in their respective departments.
If you need something, anything, to keep a department funded or meet enrollment goals, then adding a niche program is not your best strategy. The more specialized a program area is, the fewer students are willing to enroll; will the additional 2-10 students per cohort really be enough to cover costs and add revenue?
The Bottom Line
There are great reasons to consider a niche academic area. Then there are not so great reasons. If you are considering such a program, first assess whether this program would underline your institution’s strengths or try to alleviate its weaknesses. It could make all the difference.
Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.
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