Visit Modern Campus

[From the Archives] Eight Strategies to Reduce Risk in Non-Degree Program Development

While lucrative, coming to market with a range of new non-credit program offerings can be risky for colleges and universities. But there are a few key steps leaders can take to minimize those risks.
While lucrative, coming to market with a range of new non-credit program offerings can be risky for colleges and universities. But there are a few key steps leaders can take to minimize those risks.

This article was originally published May 26, 2017.

In this series, we’re highlighting some of the best work on The EvoLLLution from previous years that still resonates with us today.

Areas such as online education, credit for prior learning, and student retention are just as critical now as they were when these stories were written.

If there is an EvoLLLution piece that has stuck with you, that you think should get another chance on the homepage, email us at

Colleges and universities are becoming increasingly aware of the value of incorporating a robust continuing education unit as part of institutions’ overall programming mix. From expanding opportunities for revenue generation to creating a focused entry pipeline for degree-seeking students, non-credit programming provides agile and innovative opportunities to explore emerging needs for life-long learning.

Yet the path to successful non-degree programming is too frequently paved with failed offerings, each of which required significant institutional investment but delivered little or no return and, in some cases, resulted in lasting damage to internal relationships.

So, how can the risk of failure be reduced while eliminating many of the obstacles that hinder success?

You’ve heard the old adage, “Slow down to speed up.” It’s a solid piece of advice that is applicable in many areas of life but one that holds especially true when it comes to the introduction of non-degree training and development programs. Allowing for a reasoned investment of time and resources during the front-end planning process can save thousands of dollars in unproductive marketing approaches and endless hours spent reworking curriculum.

Here are eight strategies for reducing the risk that is inherent in new program development:

1. Validate the need:

Resist the temptation to jump from idea to design without first checking to see if there is sufficient market opportunity for the proposed programming. A feasibility study need not be overly complex but at a minimum it should factor in economic and industry trends, the current offerings of competitors, and any skill gaps being reported by employers.

2. Define specific goals:

Once you have determined that a need does indeed exist, begin with the end in mind by articulating the desired outcomes for the new program. For revenue-generating business units, the primary reason for introducing new offerings typically stems from the need to drive additional revenue. If that is the case, allow the revenue goal to frame the overall development of the offering. Secondary goals may include meeting an identified need of a specific stakeholder group, supporting a collaborative partnership, highlighting faculty expertise, or creating a non-credit pipeline to degree-seeking credit programs.

3. Know your numbers:

Financial modeling provides a tool that combines the established program goals with the discoveries of the needs analysis in a fluid template that can explore the profitability of various scenarios during the design process. Working backwards from the program goal will allow each of the elements of the program to be considered and managed as part of a whole.

4. Incorporate design thinking:

Design thinking keeps the needs of the learner at the center of the project. One effective way to maintain this focus throughout the development of the project is to generate personas for target participants. Personas are more typically used in the marketing field to guide promotional efforts but the concept translates very well to educational program design. Start by creating one or more detailed profiles that represent the target audience that you anticipate being interested in the new offering. You will want to explore specific demographics, educational background and work experience, along with the factors that are prompting an interest in continuing education at this point in their career. Clearly understanding these target personas will guide design decisions related to curriculum development, delivery mode—online or face-to-face, program length, and scheduling. In addition to informing program development, the personas will also allow marketing efforts to be highly targeted and more effective, with the benefit of being less costly.

5. Explore industry partnerships:

The feasibility study and persona development process many have identified industry trade associations that would have an interest in the proposed programming. Aligning with an association partner during the design phase can be an effective way to maintain a clear focus on industry need. The potential for joint branding and shared marketing efforts can help to ensure a strong pipeline of participants.

6. Involve subject matter experts early:

Integrate subject matter expertise into the design process while still in the conceptual stage. Facilitating conversations between faculty members who bring deep pedagogical expertise and employers who can clearly articulate existing skill gaps will lead to innovative teaching methods that are highly relevant and immediately applicable.

7. Communicate continually:

Establish a communications plan to keep key areas of the institution apprised of the program as it is being developed. You’ll benefit by creating internal advocates, with sufficient awareness of program specifics, who will be able to funnel potential referrals into the non-credit recruitment pipeline.

8. Piloting and feedback loop:

Consider offering a condensed overview of the program to an invited audience of key employer partners prior to program launch. It provides a double win as you’ll be able to harvest valuable feedback information that can be used to fine tune the full program while generating interest in participation in the full program. After the launch of the program, continue to seek feedback from participants and program faculty so that you can quickly make any adjustments needed to the curriculum, recruiting process or marketing plan.