• Issue #50

Academic Program Reviews and You!

A stack of paper-filled binders on a desk.

If you work inside a college or a department, you’re likely familiar with the dreaded Academic Program Review period - a cyclical evaluation of how academic programs are fairing in terms of enrollment, retention, reputation, and long-term viability.

Academic program reviews investigate the curriculum, the skills and learning outcomes taught, the market need matches, and the program’s overall effectiveness. These reviews are often led by external review teams from other cooperating universities. They involve an intense process including a department’s self-evaluation, a site visit, a back and forth with the review team, and ultimately, a set of recommendations and possibly an action plan. Sometimes, they coincide with accreditation requirements.

I probably don’t need to tell you that these are fiercely stressful engagements for faculties. It’s kind of like having your in-laws over for a holiday where they judge not only your meal prep, but also your child-rearing, housekeeping, and budgeting; and they prepare a report with recommendations for your close friends and work colleagues.

But it’s not just that. When a college or university is evaluating its portfolio of programs, it’s balancing the needs of programs that might be cannibalizing each others’ enrollments; it’s making decisions about future faculty hires; it’s considering market saturation and gaps in curricula.

So, what does this have to do with UX researchers and designers, content strategists, and web team managers?

Confused Dog

First, academic program reviews are a treasure trove of data for websites. They include market and policy insights, curriculum design and decision-making, quality indicators, student success outcomes… the list goes on and on. All of the details you fight so hard to make clear and inviting on a website for a prospective student audience are hiding in these self-studies.

Second, did I mention these are heightened times of stress for faculty? Suppose they are in the midst of putting together their self-report, preparing for a site visit, or answering reviewer questions. In that case, it may not be the best time in their calendars to ask for recommendations for alumni to contact for the next batch of student stories.

Third, they might actually need things from you! External site reviewers will be looking over your website. So, you want to be on top of scrubbing out-of-date content, providing enticing and descriptive program content, and conveying meaningful points of differentiation and achievement.

Fourth, you may be asked to put things on the website that are on the outside of your strategy. This is when negotiation and cooperation are essential. Yes, your enrollment strategy is important for the long-term success of your programs. And you do have to balance programmatic branding with institutional identity. But, if the request could make or break a program’s political clout and reputation, it might be worth talking through flexible options and alternatives that will best support their review process.

The tricks to managing the website side of a program review period are to get out in front of it, build trusting relationships with faculty, and provide timely responses to needs and concerns. If you want to play the game in expert mode, you can even support your departments and colleges with competitor analyses and market reports for academic programs.

If you can build the kind of trust and exchange with faculty to springboard a programmatic review into a content refresh, you’ll be taking a stressful administrative process and converting it into a brand and marketing asset that will serve your programs for years to come.

- Kristin Van Dorn