Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Selling a Program

An occasional correspondent writes:

I have to write a letter from the employer perspective to the local community college president asking that he keep open a program that supports my business, despite the relatively high cost of the program. What arguments could employers make that would make you more likely to keep an expensive program open?

A history of hiring your graduates?
Demonstrated demand for enrollment?
Offering cash and supplies to help the program continue?

Any other ideas?

Oooh, I like this question.

A couple of years ago I met with a few people who held oddball public positions -- let’s say dogcatchers, since they weren’t dogcatchers -- who tried to convince me to establish a pre-dogcatcher program. They discussed the salaries of dogcatchers, impending retirements of dogcatchers, and the interdisciplinary nature of dogcatching. I was almost sold until I asked one of them how many openings they could anticipate in the area in the next few years.


We don’t have a pre-dogcatcher program.

For a credit-bearing program -- that is, one that would employ tenure-line faculty -- I would need reasonable reassurance that the employment prospects in the field are both good and likely to stay good over time. (Noncredit programs have much lower burdens of proof.) Every college’s nightmare is the specialized program with tenured faculty and no students. That’s a fiscal sinkhole.

Obviously, any occupation that relies on a single local employer is suspect, since any given company can die or leave or shift focus or get bought at any time. That’s part of the appeal of programs like Nursing. Even if a given hospital goes under, there’s still demand at other hospitals, group practices, long-term care facilities, and the like. Criminal justice is similar; as long as there’s crime, there will be demand. Even Culinary programs, as expensive as they are, at least offer the consolation of a diversified employer market.

In some specific cases, employers have helped cover equipment costs. That’s a tremendous help, of course, since it reduces the downside risk for the college. Scholarships are somewhat less helpful, since they go to the students, and tuition covers less than the cost of instruction, especially for expensive programs.

Documented histories of hiring are always helpful, especially when the wages/salaries are above the usual entry level.

If you have the chance to do some homework about the college itself, any arguments you could make to the effect that the ingredients are already there would help. A program that uses faculty who are already there is an easier sell than one that requires specialized hires. (For example, a Culinary program might include some Business courses, and the college would run those anyway.)

Grantsmanship can make a difference, too. Many areas have workforce development boards or suchlike that put together grant proposals for programs in key industries. To the extent that you can align with these and get a set of employers and nonprofit agencies on your side to go in for grant money, you’ll have a much easier time. (These days, anything “green” is hot.) If having a program in a given field is a prerequisite to getting some of that sweet, sweet grant nectar, you’ll find yourself pushing an open door. Besides, the demographic data and employment projections that grants require tend to have persuasive powers of their own.

If I had to boil it down, it’s about allaying fears that the employment need is ephemeral, or that the college will be going it alone. If you can build a case that the need is likely to be lasting, and show that other sources of financial support are out there, you’ll have a much easier time.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Is there an argument that has worked especially well in your neck of the woods?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.