NEW ACADEMIC PROGRAMS—Developing In-Demand Niche Programs
The collection of disciplines found within universities provides important anchors for training, rigor & standards, and cross-university comparisons. That said, universities can be atomistic and slow to respond to emerging topics and challenges. Therefore, university instructional leaders must track emerging topics and job fields and adapt to meet the new demands by working within or across disciplines and fields of study.
Over the last two decades, as I taught Political Science classes for BA, MPA and PhD students, it became increasingly apparent that an entire group of socially-active students was slipping through the disciplinary cracks. While we presumed that future policymakers, government managers (and many pre-law students!) would find their way to Political Science, while those interested in private organizations would find the College of Business, the exploding non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGO) sector went under-served. At the graduate level, I noticed a growing number of non-profit leaders taking my MPA Government Budgeting & Finance class and wanting to know how non-profit budgeting worked (“get used to very low overhead,” I said). At the undergraduate level, self-described “social entrepreneurs” appeared in our courses whose organizing concept was solving deep societal and global problems that cross-cut multiple sectors, rather than wanting to pick the sector in which they would work. A niche was going under-served. OU’s new offerings in non-profit leadership and NGOs are seeing significant demand and are fulfilling a must-needed niche for students and society.
New Niche Instructional Program Musts
For a program to succeed, you need… (1) genuine interest in the subject matter by the academic unit… New programs thrust upon academic units in a top-down fashion typically do not do well. A university cannot take advantage of every potential new niche. It is important to pursue programs in which faculty and staff have a genuine interest.
… and (2) student interest and demand. We can get a sense of emerging topics of interest to students through such sources as new student surveys, on-going assessment surveys of the student body, and exit surveys of graduating seniors. Job projections are available to gauge growth in different occupational groups, which can be helpful to forecast demand for certain areas of study.
Consider providing central seed-money support for new programs. If a program brings new students to the university (provided it does not cannibalize existing programs), then additional revenues may potentially result from that program. The program can in the short term reach a break-even point after which it pays for itself and provides revenue for running the university. Hence, there is a logic for central investment in targeted program growth.
Probe possible partnerships. Targeted program development is tailor-made for partnership creation, be it with naming the program for a donor or in identifying an organization that will help fund the program. Here at OU, our engineering faculty implemented a new Data Science & Analytics Program at the master’s level with central support. Part of the success of that program hitting the break-even point quickly was a partnership with AT&T in which AT&T funded employees to take the DSA program.