Sizing Up Three Pandemic-Proof Programs
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.
The year 2020 has shown just how quickly booming industries can become “non-essential.” Within a few weeks, the U.S. has reached unemployment levels not seen in decades. If the Great Recession is any indicator for what might happen to student interest in specific academic fields following this crisis, we should expect to see an even greater degree of pragmatism and focus on return-on-investment (ROI).
When selecting an academic path, prospective students will not only consider areas with future job growth, but in this environment, also those that might offer job security during a national or global health crisis. Schools may also look to start or invest in programs with these characteristics.
Let’s look at three of these “pandemic-proof programs.” There may be opportunities, but caution is also warranted.
Pandemic-Proof Programs vs. Pandemic-Dependent Programs
Before we highlight three academic programs, let’s specify what we mean by “pandemic-proof.” We are looking at programs with a strong career articulation to occupations that under normal circumstances have a positive employment outlook for graduates, but remain stable or even experience a boost during the chaotic times of a pandemic.
We predict that these programs will see increased student interest. In contrast, other areas that we’ll call “pandemic-dependent” programs will experience a sudden surge in job opportunities, but these are likely short-lived and will return to below-average growth when the economy recovers.
Program 1: Biotechnology
While healthcare workers on the frontlines and biomedical engineers behind the scenes work tirelessly to deal with the direct impact of the crisis, the key to widespread improvement lies in better understanding the virus and creating a cure. Biotechnology plays a key role in the development of vaccines and treatments. To prospective students, the appeal may lie in the potential to directly impact important outcomes while not being exposed to the same risks as frontline healthcare workers.
How has this program performed?
National degree conferrals in biotechnology saw steady growth between 2014 and 2018, both at the master’s level, with a 3% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), and the bachelor’s level (6% CAGR), see Figure 1.
While this growth seems modest, it has outpaced the master’s (2%) and bachelor’s (1%) conferral growth for all programs. Additionally, the growth of institutions offering a biotechnology program is slower than the conferral growth in the program. Bachelor’s degree providers grew by 2% between 2014 and 2018, and master’s degree providers increased by 1%. That means while overall degree conferral numbers are small, with 865 bachelor’s degrees and 1,344 master’s degrees conferred in 2018, individual providers saw increased demand.
But caution is also warranted. The average number of biotechnology conferrals per provider may have improved in recent years, but is still far below the mean. In 2018, there were only 17 conferrals on average per provider at the master’s level, 23% below the master’s average of 22. At the bachelor’s level, the biotechnology average is a mere 10 conferrals, compared to a bachelor’s all-field average of 26. This points to a crowded market.
Accepting that biotechnology is a niche field, occupational projections are encouraging. Biotechnology is a subset of an average-sized parent occupation (natural science managers, with about 54,000 total jobs in 2018), although the parent occupation was projected, pre-pandemic, to grow faster than average. While lacking mass appeal and not 100% conducive to working from home, biotechnology will only grow in significance and scale in the coming years.
Program 2: Supply Chain Management
Empty grocery store shelves and the inability of hospitals to secure a minimal supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) have revealed just how fragile our supply chains are, and how essential the people are who manage them. While many areas of business might struggle during a recession, the supply chain for essential goods is crucial for a functioning society. One caveat is that supply chain managers in negatively impacted industries, such as hospitality and event management, are not safe from layoffs during a pandemic. Still, we predict this area will be more appealing to prospective students who are interested in business.
How has this program performed?
Supply chain management has seen recent gains in popularity among students (Figure 2). Student demand shot up at the undergraduate level in particular. Bachelor’s degree conferrals grew by 13% CAGR between 2014 and 2018 while master’s degree conferrals increased by 5%.
Compared to all business conferrals, which grew by 2% CAGR for bachelor’s degrees and less than 1% for master’s degrees, supply chain management has experienced a significant boost in student demand long before the current crisis highlighted its importance.
But many institutions have already recognized the demand for this program. The number of bachelor’s level program providers increased by 12% in the same timeframe, and master’s providers increased by 10%. With program growth keeping pace with conferral gains, schools risk increased supply limiting the benefits of increased demand. The good news is that supply chain productivity at the bachelor’s level is excellent—an average of 40 conferrals per provider in 2018, compared to the all-field average of 26. The master’s situation is less rosy, with only 17 conferrals on average against a mean of 22.
Logistics managers are a much larger occupation than even the parent occupation of biotechnologists. In 2018, there were about 175,000 logistics managers in the United States. But projected job growth is only average, perhaps due to anticipated automation.
Program 3: Mental Health Counseling
Life during a pandemic can be stressful. Isolation, adapting to homeschooling, and concerns about physical and financial health can cause or exacerbate mental health issues. The demand for mental health counseling increases substantially during and after disruptive events of all kinds. Mental health counselors have the ability to consult clients via telehealth and are therefore less impacted by the suspension of elective health services.
How has this program performed?
Figure 3 shows the growth curve for master’s degree conferrals in mental health. Since a master’s degree is required for licensing in most states, bachelor’s conferral numbers in mental health counseling are miniscule and are not included in the graph.
Master’s degree conferrals in mental health counseling have seen moderate but steady growth between 2014 and 2018, indicating growing student demand. The growth rate for mental health counseling of 4% CAGR was double the growth rate for all master’s programs (2%).
Provider growth for mental health counseling, however, was larger than conferral growth, with a CAGR of 7% in the same timeframe. This will weigh on superior productivity—an average of 28 master’s conferrals per provider.
There were about 150,000 mental health counselors in the U.S. in 2018, making this a larger than average occupation. Growth projections for the broader counselor category—up 22% in a decade—are exceptional, driven by growing awareness of mental challenges and how to address them. The pandemic will stoke yet more demand.
The Bottom Line
We believe each of these programs will continue to experience growing student demand post-pandemic. We are, however, by no means saying that every institution should rush to invest in them if they haven’t already. Rather, institutions should critically evaluate their own program portfolios and how they are performing under current circumstances. Schools need to look at these and other program opportunities from a number of angles to accurately size up an opportunity or identify a risk.
The circumstances to consider investing in these or other new programs should not only include the context of the current crisis, but also national and regional labor market trends and institutional fit and resource constraints. Even in the absence of a pandemic, many factors drive the need for periodic program reevaluation. Successful institutions know this and regularly examine their program portfolios to evaluate programs to add, sunset, or modify.
One final note, you may also be wondering why we didn’t highlight healthcare services in this “pandemic proof” post—the doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers on the frontlines right now are the true heroes of this crisis. Our take on these frontline health professions is less straightforward. We address questions we’ve received about them in our recently published Snapshot, Investment in Health Programs.
Resources & Timely Insight on COVID-19
We understand the incredible challenges that COVID-19 has caused for each of you, your institutions, and most importantly, your students. We are committed to being a trusted resource for all of our members and providing institutions with timely insight to better support your evolving needs.
In addition to our weekly Wake Up Call, we seek to provide timely and relevant answers to real-world questions that institutions are now facing in light of COVID-19. These Snapshots will cover a broad range of questions that our team has received over the last several weeks. You’ll find concise and pragmatic advice around traditional student demand, program innovation, and adult learner demand.