How Academic Program Review Will Transform Your Institution

By David Rowe January 11, 2021 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

An alumnus and senior executive with a global financial services firm told me in the early 2000s that the liberal arts college I served should launch a management information systems degree. He complained that he had to hire graduates from larger universities rather than from his alma mater. I asked him about his own rise through the ranks at his company culminating with the question, “So what was your major?”

Colleges and universities around the country are grappling with the right mix of academic program offerings, trying to match mission to market in new and creative ways. Most are doing it to attract more students. Some are doing it to reduce costs. After decades of adding programs that “won’t add any additional expenses,” boards, presidents, and faculties have to come to grips with how many senior seminars are really just independent studies in disguise.

It’s a painful process, much easier to work out on paper than in person. But it is necessary in the face of compounding financial challenges as we zoom, like Wile E. Coyote, toward the edge of a demographic cliff that we will pass just about the time that COVID-19 relief grants run out.

Because program review strikes at the heart of our mission, we can’t just tinker around the edges. It necessitates serious reflection on the enduring mission of the institution and the future of higher education.

With this kind of reflection, academic program review can catalyze at least one transformation that is essential to the resilience of any institution going forward.

Transformation: From Inputs to Outcomes

The temptation on the first pass at academic program review is to count the number of graduates in each major. Departments with low upper-level enrollments will quickly remind evaluation teams to consider “contribution to the core” without mentioning the once-every-five-years fight to keep disciplinary storefronts open in the mall of mandated courses.

Institutions looking to increase enrollment should take note of the recruitment effects of popular first majors declared and those programs identified by prospective students as strong interests. Similarly, enrollments in minors, concentrations, and other programs may demonstrate stealthy, but important, influence on student persistence rates.

Ultimately, all of this is reduced to some version of credit hour production. And because this metric is denominated in Carnegie’s rendition of “time served,” it is, even when we are comparing the number of graduates within each major, a measure of inputs.

Academic program review gives colleges and universities a chance to revise their value propositions. Rather than selling majors like destinations, we need to invite students into a journey – their journey – as we guide them and help them mark progress along the way.

With the ubiquity of (actually very good) content beyond our campuses, much of which has an expiration date anyway, colleges and universities would do well to quantify and demonstrate what we have long known to be the qualitative outcomes of liberal education. AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) VALUE rubrics provide a tool for doing just that. They translate learning outcomes from academic jargon into language that employers, parents, and prospective students describe as the “soft skills” necessary for success.

Evaluating programs within the curriculum based on their effectiveness in fostering these learning outcomes can begin the transformation from an inputs-based value proposition to one that is outcomes driven.

So back to that conversation above with my alumnus. “English,” he responded was his major. He then described in great detail how the humanities had prepared him perfectly for his FinTech career before he persisted with his advocacy for the addition of an MIS degree. He didn’t see the disconnect that I did and that many of us in higher education see.

Likewise, I didn’t appreciate the disconnect between what I thought the workplace needed – more English majors – and who he was actually going to hire which were MIS graduates from a competitor institution.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter to his hiring managers if he gets it, but it does matter to our graduates if we don’t.


David Rowe, PhD, is the interim president of Lancaster Theological Seminary and the immediate past president of Centenary College of Louisiana. He is a senior consultant and the adaptive governance practice leader for AGB. Join him and Kevin McCarthy, an AGB specialist, on Thursday, January 14, at 2 p.m. EST for the webinar “Transforming Your Institution through Academic Program Review.”


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