Emerging Program Areas in Higher Education


By: Eric McGee Sep 05, 2019

Emerging Program Areas in Higher Education

is dropping. In Spring 2018, enrollments decreased 1.3 percent from the previous year. This continues a trend of a 1% or greater drop in enrollments every semester since fall 2015. Institutions that want to stay viable in the changing market need to give students what they want. Yet, institutions can’t blindly introduce trending programs and expect success. They need to assess their market to identify the emerging program areas that will be most valuable for them and their students.

Cybersecurity is a good bet

Cybersecurity is one of the hottest program areas right now. Industry demand is high and students are excited by the growth potential and high salaries in this industry. Between 2017 and 2018, demand for cybersecurity roles jumped by over 7% according to Indeed. And, a recent survey of CEOs in the United States indicated that Cybesecurity and cyber attacks are their #1 fear, suggesting that they will continue to invest heavily in this area, even if a recession hits. By focusing on this emerging program area, institutions can help fill the talent gap in cybersecurity while attracting more students.

Other STEAM programs

In addition to cybersecurity, other STEAM Programs, that is programs in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, are also gaining popularity. Undergraduate programs in Science Technologies saw a 6.5% rise in enrollments at four-year institutions from Spring 2017 to Spring 2018. Programs in architecture saw a 4.9% rise. Enrollments in communications technologies saw a 2.7% rise, the same increase as Biological and biomedical sciences. Engineering and the Liberal Arts and Sciences saw a more modest rise of 1.6% each. The emergence of these programs is no surprise. Educators, lawmakers and employers have been talking about the need for science and technology workers since around the time that Paul Allen shoved the 1975 issue of popular mechanics in front of Bill Gates.

Programs that keep the world running

Other programs that are rising in popularity might come as more of a surprise. Construction Trades saw a 6.6% increase in enrollments at four-year institutions from Spring 2017 to Spring 2018. At the same time, degrees in Transportation and Materials Moving saw a 6.9% rise, the highest of any program in the Student Clearinghouse Research Center Report.

Online programs

From a wider perspective, institutions should examine not only the subjects of their programs, but also the method of delivery. Online programs are rising in popularity due to their convenience for students and low cost of introduction for institutions. A Babson Survey Research Group found that the number of students taking online courses has been steadily increasing since 2012. There are more students who take at least some courses online and more students completing their entire curriculum online. Although undergraduate distance learners outnumber graduate-level distance learners, both groups have grown steadily year over year. The only population that does not seem to be embracing distance learning is students of private for-profit institutions. While public and private non-profit institutions have grown their distance learner populations, the number of students studying online with private for-profit schools has dropped in sympathy with the overall drop in enrollments at such institutions. For many institutions, the benefit of online programs is that you can serve more students without building more facilities. Whole new areas of study can be introduced without the need to build lecture halls, dorms or cafeterias. While many students are embracing the convenience of online courses, institutions must take care to maintain academic rigour for all students. With modern technology, there’s no reason why an online course should be less rigourous or less interactive than its in-class counterpart. Offering consistent quality across in-person and online classes protects your institution’s brand image.

Before you introduce new programs

Be careful about chasing after trends without first exploring the potential return on investment. Some colleges are offering hyper-specialized degrees in hopes of attracting more students. That strategy can backfire if the degree is so specialized that a small number of students are interested in enrolling and you are unable to strategically and efficiently connect with that population. When assessing which programs to add to your offerings, don’t just follow the trends. Examine the need in your area. Students prefer to study at a local institution. Even online students are more likely to enroll at a school no more than 50 miles from their home. Researching the need in your state or area can help you gauge demand for a proposed program. Talk to high school students, parents, and teachers to understand what programs students might be looking for.

Reach out to local businesses to find out what roles they are having difficulty filling. Students are looking for degrees and credentials that will lead to a job offer. By partnering with local businesses you make your program more attractive to future students.
Thorough market research will help you avoid adding programs that are trendy, but ultimately not profitable. Aslanian Market Research can help with market demand studies and program feasibility studies to ensure that your programs meet the needs and preferences of prospective students.