Academic Portfolio: What Data and Collaboration Can Teach

Andrew Laws

Once institutions establish an academic portfolio model, they must actively manage the portfolio data to identify meaningful cost-containment opportunities.

Since 2012, colleges and universities have increasingly been putting a greater emphasis on managing an academic portfolio. A recent survey from Inside Higher Ed found that 75% of chief academic officers are planning on evaluating or expanding course offerings. Given the growing importance of academic portfolio management, what can institutional leaders do to get the most out of the process?

Successfully managing an academic portfolio requires continued collaboration and use of data. There are many stakeholders involved in the process and emphasizing the importance of collaboration will not only assist portfolio management, but also an institution’s mission and vision. Institutional and academic leaders can align conversations about strategic activities and information management to strengthen long-range academic planning.

Additionally, as leaders review program-level costs and data as a part of academic portfolio management, they will be able to identify opportunities to reallocate funding to support resource-intensive academic programs. Better access to this data will also increase visibility on learning, progression and graduation outcomes. As the relationships and collaboration between academic leadership and faculty strengthen, decision making, resource allocation and data analysis will improve.

As a result of developing an academic portfolio, institutions will be able to:

  • Assess financial impact of curriculum changes
  • Monitor seat utilization
  • Identify low utilization courses
  • Review programs with low enrollment
  • Manage academic unit loads
  • Standardize reporting of non-instructional load
  • Create consistency in miscellaneous pay
  • Balance faculty and adjunct undergraduate instruction
  • Assess programmatic cost reduction opportunities
  • Maintain academic portfolio and policy


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Minimize Your Challenges

There are a number challenges that institutions face when pursuing academic portfolio optimization. An institutional leaders’ ability to find success requires them to be able to address, consider and navigate these common challenges and criticisms:

  • Academic programs are not supposed to be profitable
  • Closing a “program” does not result in savings, as courses are still offered for other programs
  • Almost all cost are salaries, so no ability to control costs
  • Salary costs are effectively fixed, due to tenure
  • Centralized services won’t meet the unique needs of distributed resources, hence we need redundancy
  • We are unique, so there is no appropriate benchmark group
  • Data used to support analysis are inaccurate, incomplete or unreliable

While some of these criticisms are valid, leaders must find ways to optimize within the institution’s and the faculty’s own set of operating parameters – regardless of the challenges.

Leverage Data to Manage Change

As with any sensitive change management effort, it is critical that changes within an institution’s academic portfolio are data-informed, transparent and use high levels of stakeholder engagement. It’s also important to clearly articulate campus and leadership initiative objectives and desired end-goals at the start of the process. This will allow leaders to understand the university’s appetite for change and ability to effectuate change management.

Using data and objective measures are an important part of portfolio management to depersonalize and depoliticize change. Qualitative measurements allow the implementation team to track progress, update stakeholders, prioritize opportunities and plan accordingly.

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Academic Portfolio: What Data and Collaboration Can Teach

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