Home Accountability The High Cost of Failing Programs in Higher Education
The High Cost of Failing Programs in Higher Education

The High Cost of Failing Programs in Higher Education


Burning Glass Technologies, a data analytics company that matches labor data with institutional degree data, published a white paper this week entitled Bad Bets: The High Cost of Failing Programs in Higher Education. The data team at Burning Glass accessed Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data searching for institutions that offered new degree programs in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014.

The criteria for the search was degree programs with no graduates in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 and at least one graduate in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, using the theory that degrees don’t have graduates for at least a year or two after initiation. Five years later, in the 2017-2018 academic year, Burning Glass researchers report that two-thirds of programs graduated ten or fewer people, half reported five or fewer graduates, and 30 percent reported no graduates at all that year.

Burning Glass reports that many colleges and universities are hustling to offer new degree programs in belief that they will attract more new students. Based on their research, the vast majority of educational institutions should be sure that they conduct an accurate needs assessment. Otherwise, the cash invested for curriculum development, incremental faculty, and marketing may not be recovered in five years or more.

For institutions whose financial stability has been impacted by COVID-19, spending funds to establish new degrees may be a riskier proposition, based on the data reported by Burning Glass. Burning Glass estimates the costs for a new degree program at $2 million over four years.

The failure rate of programs, defined as achieving no graduates in 2017-2018 or fewer than 10 graduates in 2017-2018, appears to decline as higher education institutions’ size increases based on the number of annual conferrals. Some of this is intuitive, as small colleges by virtue of their total enrollment will be handicapped at the +10 graduates per program per year benchmark.

Programs with no 2018 conferrals ranged from a 43 percent failure rate for institutions conferring up to 250 degrees per year to 25 percent for institutions conferring 5,001 or more degrees per year. Directionally, the failure rate for programs with less than 10 conferrals per year ranged from 84 percent for institutions conferring up to 250 degrees to 42 percent for institutions with 5,001+ conferrals per year.

Public four-year institutions performed better than private, non-profit four-year institutions with a 24 percent failure rate at the no conferrals reported in 2017-2018 versus 34 percent. Private for-profit four-year institutions performed slightly worse at 42 percent no conferrals.

However, for-profit institutions generally attract more part-time students than private four-year non-profit institutions, and that data could explain the no conferral percentage in five years.

Burning Glass provides a number of interesting tables in the report, including groupings by degree category (social science, liberal arts, business, etc.), by tax status of college/university, and by community colleges. The researchers also note that on average, two-thirds of an institution’s undergraduates major in no more than 12 programs. They also report that 48 percent of academic programs produce 10 or fewer graduates per year, accounting for 7 percent of all degrees issued that year.

Burning Glass also writes that expanding the market for higher education is likely the key to survival for many institutions. They report that there appears to be no consensus on how much it costs to start up a new program, what the return on investment (ROI) is expected to be, or the number of enrollees and conferrals required to make the new program a success.

At American Public University System (APUS), we determined years ago that we needed to conduct a market needs analysis before spending the time to develop and implement a new degree program. As an online university, it wasn’t the cost of additional classroom spaces for new students that concerned us, but more the cost to develop online classes and market them to an additional group of prospective students. While not always accurate, the exercise of polling prospective students as well as examining the existing labor market demand has been informative for our faculty and academic leadership.

The Burning Glass report notes that in today’s fiscal climate, the greatest cost is in lost opportunities. If colleges conducted thorough needs assessments, they could spend their money on different programs that would bring in paying students. Too many higher education institutions still grow in a haphazard manner versus a coordinated strategy.

The report quotes financial consultant Rick Staisloff as suggesting new programs should be evaluated in terms of the institution’s mission, market, and margin. Based on that recommendation, some process elements that higher education institutions may want to consider are:

  1. Understanding what employers need. Career-oriented courses must hit the mark in terms of providing valuable, up-to-date job skills.
  2. Understanding the students – and parents – you want to attract. A new program that attracts students but doesn’t connect them with viable careers won’t be sustainable for long.
  3. Setting specific metrics to show return on investment. Will a new program expand the institution’s base of students or just move existing students from one program to another?
  4. Know when to quit and when to stand pat. Colleges should have a specific timeframe for an academic program to prove its value.

While the Burning Glass report may showcase the capabilities of its databases and researchers, by no means does it invalidate the metrics identified. At APUS, we have utilized Burning Glass data to provide us with industry demand data for specific credentials. We have found it to be more current and accurate than our previous sources.

At the same time, we don’t claim to be 100 percent accurate with our degree needs assessments. In Jamie Merisotis’ latest book, Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, he notes how the education and employer systems need to integrate more in order to prepare individuals for the ongoing adaptation of artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on the workforce.

Companies like Burning Glass that collect data from both systems (higher ed degrees/alumni and companies/industries) enable the partnerships that need to form to ensure that U.S. employers are able to recruit qualified employees from college degree and certificate completers. The era of “not invented here” syndrome has to disappear for higher education to survive and thrive. Thank you, Burning Glass, for pointing out a serious deficiency in higher ed’s new program offerings!

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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