Designing Program Review for Sustainability in the COVID Era

Posted by Tony Adam on Aug 4, 2020 12:54:16 PM
Tony Adam

Universities and colleges are facing financial hard times due to COVID, with lower enrollments, cuts in state/local funding, impacted endowment, and other diminished sources of revenue. Administrators must make difficult choices on retention of faculty, courses, programs, and even support units and personnel. Institutions vary widely in their approaches, and the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) has some excellent documents on these approaches.

One factor common to all approaches: the need for data-informed decision-making on program sustainability. Local Institutional Effectiveness offices more than likely have the data necessary to help in the process, but a standardized reporting approach, which includes comparative variables and allows for narrative responses in a collaborative electronic format, makes the process easier and helps ensure equity in review.    

When developing program review, institutions should consider a number of possible variables which affect a program’s sustainability:

  1. Enrollment gains/losses
  2. Retention gains/losses
  3. Graduation gains/losses
  4. Gainful Employment reporting
  5. Market analysis, possibly to include an environmental scan (who will hire the graduates?)
  6. Relevance to institutional mission
  7. Revenue (semester credit hours (SCH), fees, etc.) vs expenses (salaries, facilities, etc.)
  8. Availability of similar/identical programs in area, system, etc.

While some courses within such basic programs as English and History are essential for core graduation requirements, but program review can reveal other courses within such programs that could be eliminated to support better resource allocation. Institution leaders should consider how often a course has not only been offered but actually “made,” how many students enroll over a period of years, and if faculty specializations are required. If, for example, a community college offers a popular “Introduction to Music” course as a core elective, can the department also financially sustain an opera minor with specialized credentialed faculty but only three students enrolled annually? Some states, such as Texas, mandate removal of low enrollment courses and programs from inventories as part of resource allocation. Better that the institution take the initiative than to have an external agency force changes that may cause problems locally.

Key to the collaborative nature of program review is participation by faculty, staff, administrators, and external stakeholders. The latter group can perhaps steer the review in a completely different but meaningful direction, such as pointing out the need for program specialization or updating the program to improve viability of gainful employment. But regardless of the contributor’s role to the review, focus must remain on data rather than guesswork, past history, or “feelings.” If faculty want to retain a program, they need to demonstrate viability through statistical rather than anecdotal evidence. A standardized electronic format can simplify the reporting process for internal and external stakeholders, and, if thoughtfully constructed, yield valuable insights that make decision making more transparent, ameliorative, and beneficial to the institution as a whole.

In the end, program review can lead to a number of possible outcomes, including elimination of a program, continued maintenance “as is,” or some point in-between, which could entail consolidation or renaming of programs and courses or modifying existing inventories. The review, particularly for new programs, could be limited to a two- or three-year grace period, giving the program time to grow and demonstrate sustainability. But whether the review covers existing or newly-created programs, the program itself must align with the institution’s mission. If the participants cannot demonstrate alignment of program and mission, no amount of data should impact program retention decisions.          

Truly integrated software solutions such as SPOL can give institutions the tools necessary for continued operations not only for program review but integrated budgeting, program/service unit assessment, strategic planning, faculty credentialing, and regional/program accreditation. Personnel working from home or the office can more easily and efficiently collaborate on projects, engage in a meaningful, institution-centric, data driven decision-making process facilitate hard decisions, and continue operations; all with minimal interruption of services as the institution moves into a more virtual operational environment. If the institution must make tough decisions towards program sustainability, an integrated system such as SPOL can make processes and revised workflow smoother for those personnel remaining.

As the world continues to evolve in the wake of COVID-19, it’s clear that for higher education, paper-based processes are inefficient remnants of the past. And it isn’t too late to embrace an online platform. Partners, such as SPOL, specialize in providing customizable platforms that meet your institution where you are. If you’d like to learn how SPOL can pivot your institution’s planning and budgeting efforts, reach out to us today for a consultation.        


Topics: COVID-19, Program Review