New Insight Into New Programs

Letter from the Chief Economist

Published on Mar 24, 2023

Written by Bledi Taska

Every new degree program launched by a college or university represents a huge investment of time, money, and opportunity cost—and after all that, the last thing anyone wants is for the programs to stop producing graduates. So how can we make sure that doesn’t happen?

New Lightcast research can help tell us. We’ve just released Unlocking Insights for Program Growth and Success, a new report that includes analysis of over 8,000 new programs based on all kinds of factors like major, school size, and type of degree. 

Our definition of “success” is based on whether a program has at least 10 conferrals at least once and grows by 50% over five years. By that metric, about 30% of new programs thrive, 30% don’t, and the remaining 40% are caught in the middle. By studying patterns in how past programs have fared, those creating new programs can help guide future endeavors toward success.

Here are some of our top findings:

The door to success is open to everyone. A wide range of academic disciplines have similar odds of success, meaning that (contrary to conventional wisdom) programs in STEM are not more likely to succeed than those in the humanities.

The rate of success for programs has been rising over time. The rate of success for programs has been rising over time, going from 23% in 2017 to 28% in 2021, itself an increase of 22%. That’s good news, but we also found graduates from these fast-growing programs are more likely to be underemployed—suggesting that greater labor-market alignment is needed.

Public institutions are more likely to see their new programs grow. Four-year public colleges and universities have the most success with new programs, and their success rates have gone up by 32% since 2017. For smaller institutions, this means that it's important to make well-planned, data-driven decisions about starting new programs.

Master's degree programs are more likely to succeed than other types of programs. 

Master's degree programs launched during the analyzed period had a success rate of 34%, compared to 29% for bachelor's degrees and 25% for associate's degrees. 

Launching new programs is a complex decision, but data can help institutions make better choices. Understanding students' needs and how their learning connects to future careers is key to success, and labor market data can help educators create programs that provide value.

There’s plenty else to explore in the report, and I’d encourage you to give it a read: download Unlocking Insights right here.

In The Papers

Let’s stick with education for a moment. I want to start by discussing “Connecting higher education to workplace activities and earnings” by Hung Chau, Sarah H. Bana, Baptiste Bouvier, and Morgan R. Frank. 

The researchers analyzed over a million syllabi from the Open Syllabus Project dataset covering over 800 US degree-granting institutions, then compared the skills taught in those classes to labor market data about the work employees do and how much they’re paid.

There were three main questions this research sought to answer. First, could workforce comparisons from the Department of Labor also identify differences between different college majors and institutions? Second, how do the skills taught in curricula change over time, and how can past patterns predict future trends? And thirdly, how do different skills taught compare to what graduates earn?

They’re important questions, each with a complex set of considerations affecting their answers. I’ll admit the paper is a bit dense, but essentially, they find that across majors, skills taught in institutions differ from skills sought by employers. But most importantly, those differences are significant in predicting graduates’ future earnings. 

That means that we can’t look at two people with the same major and expect them to have the same success in their careers—what matters is the skills taught in those majors, and that varies school by school, even class by class. To meaningfully understand how education affects employment, something as specific as one course’s curriculum matters (and just very briefly I’ll add that if that’s something you want to pursue, Lightcast has the tools to help). 

I saw that many of the same questions were addressed this week by our friends at The Burning Glass Institute: authors Matt Sigelman and Jeffrey Selingo have just released a new report called Making The Bachelor’s Degree More Valuable. It was written in conversation with the trend toward skills-based hiring, where employers are increasingly requiring specific skills in job postings rather than requiring college degrees. That’s a good thing—but where does it leave the BA?

Here’s what they found after analyzing actual career outcomes of 5 million graduates in the Lightcast database: a bachelor’s degree is immediately valuable within a year of graduation, carrying a 25% wage premium that holds steady over the entire period studied (worth more than four years of experience for workers without a degree). Even in jobs where a degree isn’t required, workers with one end up earning more, because they’re more likely to move into a higher-paying job. 

But even demonstrating the worth of the bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean institutions can sit back and let skills-based hiring run its course, because like we saw in the paper above, differences between majors matter. As the Burning Glass Institute report shows, wage premiums for a specific skill can vary by major. For example, they write: “knowing SQL, a programming language, delivers a 11 percent wage premium to a Natural Resources and Conservation major (where SQL is a relatively scarce skill), but only a 4 percent return to a Math and Statistics major (where SQL is a relatively common skill).” 

What all these reports show is that there’s so much to learn from past patterns about how education aligns with success in the labor market. Nothing here is a magical stroke of genius that will solve all problems for institutions, educators, and students, but the more we learn about the connections between schools and the labor market, the better we can align the two and achieve greater success for everyone.

Economic News

Lastly, I want to touch on the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates this week by 0.25%, which didn’t come as a huge surprise. Like I mentioned last week, strong numbers on jobs and inflation pointed toward a bigger increase, because inflation has been more stubborn than anticipated—but then the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and the threat of further instability had the opposite effect. So this decision was necessary to provide stability in the financial markets.

If the Fed had chosen to pause hiking rates for the first time in months, it would signal that the Fed itself is scared of how the banking crisis might continue to unfold, and that would be a disaster. When the Fed is frightened, everyone starts rushing for the lifeboats. A modest increase both fights inflation and contributes to greater financial stability; it was the right call.

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