Focus on the Presidency: Degree-Program Array and College Boards

By Kevin P. Reilly    //    Volume 21,  Number 4   //    July/August 2013

At a time when resources are tight, institutions of higher education are under more scrutiny than ever to determine whether they are offering coursework and degree programs that effectively prepare students to meet real workforce needs.

In that environment, governing boards and institutions can face significant pressure from businesses, legislators, and citizens when deciding to add new degree programs or discontinue existing degrees. Institutions are sometimes criticized for being slow to react to changing demand or investing resources in programs that don’t appear to be connected to specific jobs or career fields. At the same time, others will criticize colleges and universities for focusing too heavily on technical skills and job training. They argue that a college education yields broader personal and social benefits, and the ultimate value of a program may not lie only in how it contributes to job skills.

But who makes those calls about an institution’s program array and how? Those are the questions that institutions and governing boards must answer, requiring a sometimes tricky balancing act between the educational and economic missions.

Changes to a college or university’s program array can occur for a variety of reasons, including changes in long-range institutional planning, changes in supply and demand (or market) for certain programs, changes in the educational landscape, and changes in the needs of the state.

In the University of Wisconsin (UW) System, our board of regents has the final say on new programs. Before any approval, the board poses crucial questions, such as: What does it cost? Does its market value validate the additional expense? What are the long-range projections for a program? Does it provide a short-term fix or fill a long-term need? Is its quality sufficient to meet the standards of both the institution and any accrediting bodies? Are resources available to successfully implement the program?

In a university system with multiple campuses statewide—the UW System has 26—decisions about program array acquire additional complexity.

Consider the issue of program duplication. When is demand deemed high enough to justify more than one institution offering a particular program? Is it OK for a new program to succeed at the expense of a similar one being offered at another institution? To meet demand, should an institution take advantage of distance-learning technology to expand its program reach? Is collaboration with other institutions a better option? Or should institutions offer their own programs? How is it decided whether College A or College B gets that privilege?

There are still other considerations for board members. Does a new program contribute to mission creep at an institution? Is that desirable or undesirable? Who is impacted?

Taking all these factors into consideration, new academic and degree programs in the UW System are forwarded to the board of regents for approval only if they meet stringent criteria. A new program must address the needs of students, campuses, the UW System, and the state. There must be a demonstrated market need, and the program must incorporate best practices in the field. It must meet national standards as well as the requirements of accrediting organizations. A new program must also use UW System resources efficiently and responsibly.

On a continuing basis, UW System administration staff reviews the system’s academic array for duplications. Another key task is to manage gaps that may arise when new technologies are invented or the economy needs graduates in certain growth fields. When such gaps are identified, UW institutions respond by expanding capacity or creating new programs and learning opportunities that fit their institutional profile and vision.

Legislators, the business community, students, and taxpayers are right to expect that a public university will offer a program array that meets the changing needs of students and the workplace, both now and into the future. For the board of any college or university—public or private—overseeing the degree programs offered is an essential and delicate function, and a defining one for the institution.

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