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When to Close Struggling Programs

By Heather Boerner

Forced to do more with less, college leaders share ideas about how to shutter underperforming initiatives.

Confronted with declining budgets and shifting priorities, administrators at the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS) are no strangers to change.

LCTCS has shuttered or eliminated more than 700 educational programs in six years.

System President Monty Sullivan says the turnover is part of a continuous process to provide students at the state’s 13 community colleges with the best, most relevant education and job training possible — all at a cost that the system can afford.

All about completion

As pressure mounts to improve completion rates, Sullivan says aligning educational programs to economic demand is a surefire recipe for college success.

“Those jobs with high salaries and high demand naturally have 85 percent to 90 percent graduation rates,” he explains.

For LCTCS, the challenge is how to grow the programs that meet those needs — and eliminate the ones that don’t. Making those decisions is difficult.

Looking for a few strategies to employ when evaluating your current educational offerings? Consider these ideas:

LCTCS’s Sullivan recently sat on a committee responsible for developing a statewide economic forecast. As part of that assignment, he met with 100 business leaders from across the state. In each case, executives described the positions they were looking to fill and the skills needed to fill them. When the final forecast was released, Sullivan compared it with existing programs at the state’s community colleges.

If a program proved unable to meet local economic needs, LCTCS considered cutting it.

“Community colleges can no longer expect to be sheltered from the real world of the economy,” Sullivan explains, adding, “We are the vehicle by which the people we serve are able to participate in the economy now.”

We are the vehicle by which the people we serve are able to participate in the economy now.

For Sullivan, it comes down to one word: focus.

“Our work is not about our college; it’s about our community,” he says. “As long as you maintain the focus on the external, it helps internal stakeholders understand your thought process.”

LCTCS isn’t the only college system that’s been forced to make tough decisions. And the problem isn’t limited to U.S. colleges either. At Selkirk College in British Columbia, administrators recently decided to close the school’s 45-year-old airline-pilot training program.

That decision was made after an internal audit discovered the program was under performing in 14 of 18 core subject areas. Neil Coburn, vice president of education and students at Selkirk, says the college met with local industry partners to review workforce data before arriving at its decision.

His advice: “Be open with community and industry partners. They are intelligent people and understand what’s going on; they know organizations have internal issues.”

Students are also a big part of the equation.

“You get union contracts coming in and budget deadlines and marketing plans, and everyone wants to know what’s happening with this program,” says Coburn. “Don’t lose sight of the learner in all of that. They are always the central focus.”

Has your college been forced to close educational programs due to budget cuts or changing priorities on campus? Share your approach in the Comments.

Heather Boerner

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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