The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Pruning Programs to Help a Portfolio Bloom

A man (Bruce Etter) is dressed in a blue suit smiling for a headshot.

By Bruce Etter

On a recent soggy summer day, I sauntered into my yard with a pair of loppers in one hand and my trusty instructor, my phone, in the other. For the first time, I was going to prune our rose bushes. Like many millennials, I consulted the internet prior to embarking on this task to better understand not only how to prune a rose bush (which seemed intuitive enough), but also why I should do so. What I learned is that while pruning encourages increased blooms, more importantly, it protects the remainder of the bush from potential diseases. As I was removing the dead and diseased canes, I found myself thinking about the parallels between a college or university’s portfolio of programs and the bush I was delicately tending to.

Over the last few years UPCEA’s Research and Consulting team has reviewed thousands of programs through its portfolio decision-making model (PDMM). All too often, we would see the equivalent of diseased or dying programs within an institution’s portfolio. While programs may have once bloomed with enrollments, they may now be in decline, steadily losing the vitality they once knew. Rather than institutions recognizing and compassionately removing these programs from the portfolio, they are left to languish on in a destitute perpetuity, sapping resources that could better serve the portfolio elsewhere. Although it may be clear that action is needed to stop the prolonged programmatic decay, there is often a lack of guidance on how and when to make those decisions.  

UPCEA’s June 2023 snap poll found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents disagreed (41%) or strongly disagreed (23%) with the notion that their institution has a clearly defined set of metrics and parameters for determining if a program should be sunset. Despite the lack of clear guidelines, the poll found 80% of institutions have sunset a program within the last three years, averaging 5.3 programs per institution during that time span. These were most often non-credit (37%), followed by graduate degrees (20%) and graduate certificates (22%).[1] As higher education’s competitive market continues to tighten, it will be critical for institutions to have established parameters for sunsetting programs, and to effectively communicate those metrics to faculty and staff.

Given the understandable sensitivities around sunsetting programs, it is imperative that the process is driven by data. Most programs begin with promise and hope for the institution. People develop relationships with and through the program. Some programs can have successful multi-decade runs before their time runs out. Because of this, individuals in and around the program can feel as though a decision to sunset a program is a reflection on how an institution may value them or their work. With these realities in mind, academic leaders must have empathetic ears while also operating on clearly defined metrics. Measurable metrics that can influence the decision to sunset a program include but are not limited to program inquiries, applications, enrollments, student retention, gross revenue, marketing costs, faculty costs, and net revenue, among others.

Furthermore, assessing whether the program is meeting a market need is essential. In addition to internal metrics, institutions should look beyond their own borders to better understand program viability. Assuming new programming decisions are driven by relevant data, rather than gut feelings or pressure from donors, it is important to ask if the market factors that led to the creation of the program still hold true. Resources such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) can inform whether or not other institutions are experiencing sustained drops in enrollments. Organizations like Lightcast can detail labor market forecasts and in-demand skills for occupations associated with the program. UPCEA can provide feasibility studies or custom consulting to aid in these decisions. Potential challenges can stem from a lack of perceived value, marketing issues, program nomenclature, program isolation, curriculum relevancy, and tuition, among others. While some of these issues can be addressed, others cannot. Regardless of the root cause or causes, institutions need to be transparent around the sunsetting process. 

Some institutions, like Sonoma State University, have policies that emphasize that program discontinuation should not be a response to short-term financial crises or personnel shortages, but instead should result from factors such as underfunding, insufficient faculty, or inadequate support.[2] To avoid situations where there is dispute over discontinuing an academic program, the University of Wisconsin has a planning process for discontinuing or suspending degree/major programs and certificate programs. The process involves the review and approval of proposals by the academic department that owns the program, the school/college, the University Academic Planning Council for undergraduate programs, and the Graduate Faculty Executive Committee Council for graduate programs. The approved proposals are then reported to relevant offices within UW-Madison by the Provost’s Office.[3]

Closing an academic program is a complex decision that requires careful consideration and communication. Administrators must assess whether program closure is truly necessary, while also recognizing potential costs such as lost confidence in the institution from students, staff, or faculty, resistance from alumni and other program supporters, and potentially negative press. Additionally, the institution will need to create a thoughtful teach out plan for individuals that are actively enrolled in the program and strategize where to best use the expertise of faculty that were involved with the program. Furthermore, closing programs solely as a response to financial constraints may not result in significant short-term savings unless other cost-saving measures are implemented.[4]

With these potential challenges in mind, it is crucial to have a clear, compelling, and unwavering case for why a program is being closed, ensuring consistent communication of the decision, process, and rationale to stakeholders. Recognizing that the closure process can be political, administrators need to understand stakeholder dynamics and the need for inclusive listening. Implementing decisions requires attention to detail and a focus on people, as closing a program can be emotionally challenging for those involved.[5] Sunsetting academic programs requires a comprehensive assessment of various factors and considerations for stakeholders to understand the reason behind the decision and for the discontinuation process to run smoothly. In order to have clear communication and know when it is appropriate to sunset an academic program, it is essential that institutions have clear guidelines in place.While sunsetting a program is always going to be a difficult decision, it is sometimes necessary to protect the greater health of the portfolio and the institution. Much like my rosebush, understanding why and when the cut needs to be made is paramount to carrying out the task effectively. Resources that had been spent on the declining program can instead be used to nurture other offerings and help the totality of the portfolio thrive. 


Bruce Etter, Senior Director of Research & Consulting, is responsible for developing and managing research initiatives for UPCEA Research and Consulting and its clients. He graduated from Penn State University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Sociology and a minor in Sustainability Leadership.


[1] UPCEA June 2023 Snap Poll





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