Benchmark This!

A Blog on Latest Trends Impacting Marketing and Higher Education
from UPCEA's Chief Research Officer, Jim Fong and Senior Director of Research & Consulting, Bruce Etter

Pruning Programs to Help a Portfolio Bloom

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





Jim Fong, UPCEA

Lead consultant Jim Fong, the founding director of UPCEA Research and Consulting, has extensive background in marketing at Penn State, as well as experience in private industry. Jim brings a rich understanding of the dynamics driving today’s higher education leaders, providing research-driven strategy and positioning. Jim often presents at UPCEA’s conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.

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

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

Do you need help with your PCO unit or campus? We can help. Contact UPCEA Research and Consulting for a brief consult. Email [email protected] or call us at 202-659-3130.

Whether you need benchmarking studies, or market research for a new program, UPCEA Consulting is the right choice.

We know you. We know the challenges you face and we have the solutions you need. We speak your language and have been serving leaders like you for more than 100 years. UPCEA consultants are current or former continuing and online higher education professionals who are experts in the industry—put our expertise to work for you.

Data that tells your story.

Whether you need to assess the viability of a new program, find out how you stack up with the competition or would like a program portfolio review, we can assist with research and data that will help move your unit forward. Your decisions impact the quality of your operation, as well as the bottom line. We’ll provide data that does more than sit on a page—it’s data that tells the story.

The UPCEA Center for Research and Strategy offers a variety of custom research options through a variable pricing model.

Click here to learn more.

Other UPCEA Updates + Blogs

Gainful Employment and Financial Value Transparency Final Regulations Released – Effective July 1, 2024 | Policy Matters (September 2023)

Major Updates   New Gainful Employment and Financial Value Transparency Final Regulations Released – Effective July 1, 2024 The US Department of Education has released final Gainful Employment and “Financial Value Transparency” regulations. The Gainful Employment (GE) regulations include new and higher bars for career programs and connecting outcomes to programs offered by private for-profit…

Read More

Advisory Boards Aid in Alleviating AI Anxiety (Inside Higher Ed)

When it comes to artificial intelligence and higher ed, the excitement and hype are matched by the uncertainties and need for guidance. One solution: creating an AI advisory board that brings together students, faculty and staff for open conversations about the new technology. That was a key idea presented at the University of Central Florida’s…

Read More

University of Texas System Bets Big on Microcredentials (Inside Higher Ed)

As the saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas. And now going big applies to microcredentials. The University of Texas System, spanning nine academic campuses with roughly 240,000 students, is expanding its partnership with microcredential provider Coursera. The initiative announced last month is Coursera’s largest, aiming to reach 30,000 students with 35 courses by 2025.…

Read More

UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Group Grows, Welcomes Stacy Chiaramonte, and Offers Exciting Career Opportunity

UPCEA Research and Consulting is Growing: As a leader in Professional, Continuing, and Online (PCO) education, UPCEA’s Research and Consulting group continues to expand, aligning with the evolving needs of higher education institutions. Our industry experts bring years of experience to provide unparalleled value in the industry. Welcome Stacy Chiaramonte: UPCEA proudly welcomes Stacy Chiaramonte…

Read More

Biden Administration Issues Resources in Response to Race-Based Admissions Decision | Policy Matters (August 2023)

Major Updates Supreme Court Race-Based Admissions Updates + Webinar Recording Biden Administration Issues Guidance and Resources in Response to Race-Based Admissions Decision The Biden Administration released resources to assist institutions understand the Supreme Court’s recent decision on race-based admissions. These resources will help colleges and universities as they work to lawfully pursue efforts to achieve…

Read More

Listen to Derek Bruff’s Intentional Teaching podcast, now sponsored by UPCEA!

UPCEA is excited to announce that we are now sponsoring the Intentional Teaching podcast hosted by Derek Bruff. Derek is an educator, author, and higher ed consultant. He directed the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching for more than a decade, where he helped faculty and other instructors develop foundational teaching skills and explore new ideas…

Read More

The Nation's Top Universities Choose UPCEA Consulting

Informed decisions. Ideas that work. The data you need. Trusted by the top universities in the nation.