The high cost of comprehensiveness

Unprincipled curricular growth can often do more harm than good

As we have seen in health care, higher education costs have increased in part due to providing an increasingly broad range of specialized options. A major driver of increasing academic costs has been the proliferation of specialized academic offerings. Colleges and universities have added new courses, new academic programs, and new departments without reducing those options that no longer attract students or align with the institution’s core mission. As a result, they experience costly excess capacity in some courses and programs even as they struggle with bottlenecks in other areas.

Decades of curricular proliferation have led to unsustainable costs

Universities added specializations in the name of comprehensiveness during a long period of enrollment and revenue growth, only to find that they are now unable to maintain quality across so many programs, course offerings, and research specializations. The ‘long tail’ of low demand courses and programs is a major contributor to higher costs. It also diverts resources away from other programs whose impact could be enhanced with additional resources. Program and course proliferation drive up administrative costs within academic units as well. And an excess of choice contributes to a range of student success challenges including longer time to degree, excess credits taken, and lower completion rates.

The Long Tail
Bachelor's Degrees Granted by Major, Three Sample Institutions

The long tail

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When good intentions create undesirable consequences

Proliferation of specialized offerings was a natural result of the aspirations of individual faculty and departments to extend the bounds of knowledge and to increase the diversity and quality of academic offerings. It also grew from each institution’s desire to serve a wider range of constituencies with a broader set of programs and services. But many institutions are now recognizing that the cost of proliferation has outstripped the value of choice.

The Drivers of Proliferation

The drivers of proliferation

Migrating resources from low- to high-impact courses and programs

Campuses that have seen the best results from instructional efficency reforms have focused not on across-the-board cost cutting but on reallocating existing resources from low-demand and low-impact activities to higher-demand and higher-impact activities. They see efficiency as a means to improve quality and ultimately build a sustainable financial model.

Looking for more on realigning resources without sacrificing quality?

The Academic Affairs Forum offers a range of resources—including best-practice research—to help academic leaders control academic costs and support institutional priorities. Speak with an expert to learn more about the support we offer.

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