It’s Not Just About Curriculum: Programmatic Best Practices for Healthy Academic Programs

It’s no secret that higher education is changing and that the way students are consuming education is evolving along with it. With that in mind, academic programs have become much more than a course of studies—they’re now products in an institution’s line of offerings, and many colleges and universities track the long-term return on investment for launching and facilitating certain programs. While it’s common for us to view our programs from an instructional perspective, it has now become vital that we leverage other frameworks to inform our evaluation as well. This article will explore several ways a student interacts with a program and four associated frameworks from which to view it, as well as provide selected best practices for each.

Selection

Before a student has even enrolled in college, they are going through a selection phase, weighing the advantages of a variety of programs that feed into their chosen field. Learning House’s most recent survey of online students (2017) notes that 52% of respondents reviewed programs at three or more institutions before making their decision. Competition is, therefore, becoming a much more relevant concern for institutions offering online degrees. While factors such as geography and prestige (rankings) factor into students’ decisions, they’re also weighing aspects such as cost and uniqueness of experience. When planning out the structure of an academic program, institutions should take into account the following practices to ensure that it is appealing to learners in the selection phase:

Practice Potential Questions to Ask
Evaluating the program’s growth potential (i.e., ensuring it addresses a growing career track or measurable student demand).
  • Is there a high need for this skill set in our region?
  • Is this a program that our students have been asking for?
  • Are we able to offer this program to a large number of learners?
Ensuring the program is well aligned with other on-ground and online programs and fits well within the institutional model.
  • Does this program have potential to lead to other advanced degrees?
  • Is our institution well known for offering programs in this field?
  • What are our highest enrolling programs? How do we build on them?
Having unique selling points or differentiators “baked in” to the program that make it stand out from others beyond a small class size or well-trained faculty.
  • Aside from our faculty, how would this program stand out from the pack?
  • What are some ways we could maximize the value for the student?
  • What is the return on investment for this program? How do we message that?
Pricing in a way that is competitive with other regional institutions for the student population that will take the program.
  • What is the average cost of a degree in this field?
  • How would our program stack up?
  • What is the population that would take the program? Is the price appropriate to that population?

 

Enrollment

Once a student has selected a program, they still need to be enrolled. There may be barriers to enrollment that will cause a student to return to the selection phase and seek out an alternative. Specifically, during the enrollment phase students are figuring out how quickly they can be accepted and start, if or how soon their transfer credits will be applied toward their degree, and what additional hoops they’ll need to jump through in order to start learning. The healthiest programs from an enrollment frame of reference will be those that quickly and fluidly move a student from selection to registration in as few steps as possible. Consider the following practices when tackling that:

Practice Potential Questions to Ask
Setting it up so the program makes rolling admissions decisions and can turn around an application within 72 hours after submission.
  • How do we currently make admissions decisions?
  • Can we make them more quickly?
Ensuring the program has multiple entry points throughout the year for students to enroll and begin their studies quickly.
  • How often can a new student begin our program?
  • What are the barriers to offering additional start points?
Minimizing prerequisite courses and accepting College Level Examination Program (CLEP) credits.
  • How much credit can a student transfer into our program?
  • What are the core experiences of our program that must occur at our institutions?
Tailoring the number of minimum qualifications needed to enroll the target student population.
  • Do we require any work or experience qualifications?
  • What means do we use to measure said qualifications?

 

Learning

Having finally entered into a program, the learning phase can take place. In all programs, but especially in online programs, learning needs to be heavily structured to ensure that students progress properly and appropriate rigor is in place. However, that also means that faculty need to be properly supported within said structure in a way that respects their time and recognizes their efforts. In ensuring that the day-to-day machinery of a program functions smoothly, it’s wise to consider the following steps:

Practice Potential Questions to Ask
Ensuring that all program and course outcomes are defined and mapped out to ensure that there is proper progression and minimal gaps.
  • How current are our program learning outcomes?
  • Do we have a programmatic assessment plan?
  • How consistent is our teaching of defined outcomes from course to course?
Properly supporting faculty with program guidelines, time definitions within their contracts, and stipends tailored to their time investment.
  • Do we have an accurate and realistic picture of the workload our faculty maintain?
  • Do we have programmatic standards for instruction?
Minimizing variation in the student learning experience by standardizing course content and assessment for all sections.
  • Do we have programmatic standards for instruction?
  • How consistent is our teaching of defined outcomes from course to course?
Setting aside a specific budget for contracting faculty to design and teach courses.
  • How much of our budget for development of online courses comes directly from academic affairs?
  • How much can we set aside to support it?

 

Persistence

Even once students have selected and enrolled in a program, and even if that program’s learning structure is sound, the risk of student dropout or failure remains. Online programs in particular risk high attrition and student disengagement. While students should be accountable for their work, it’s also possible to implement a series of structural steps within the program to minimize attrition and help students focus on their work. When setting up the program’s policies and procedures, keep the following in mind:

Practice Potential Questions to Ask
Creating a standardized “plan” that most students will follow from admission to completion and being on call for those students who may need adjustment.
  • What is the most common course progression students take?Can our program support that progression for each new term start?
  • How can we minimize variance in course offerings for students?
For necessary general education and prerequisite requirements, collaborating with other departments to ensure that sufficient offerings are ready each semester.
  • What requirements do our programs have and who on our campus is responsible for those courses?
  • How can we collaborate with other departments to ensure that the student experience is aligned within our departments?
Allowing the students to self-register for courses without staff reports or approvals.
  • What is our current registration process?
  • What impediments are in the way to self-registration and how can we remove them?
Considering developing a “fast track” for students with relevant prior job experience or coursework.
  • Does our program support a prior learning assessment model?
  • What are the core aspects of this program that must be experienced by every student?

 

Conclusion

Before launching an online program, institutions interested in finding students need to consider the logistics of every piece of the process, from the selection of their institution’s program all the way through graduation. While these above lenses can help when beginning the build out of a new program, a student’s experience in an academic program is more than the sum of its parts. All of these frameworks are interconnected, and through addressing all of them during the course of a program’s development, it’s possible to optimize the student experience from more than just a learning perspective.

References

Clinefelter, D. L., & Aslanian, C. B. (2015). Online college students 2015: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.

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