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5 Questions to Help Trim Your Course Catalog and Improve ROI

Nic Lyons

November 30, 2021

Deciding to remove a class from your course catalog is never easy. You’ve invested time and money to develop it. You may have an instructor or board members who have adopted it as a pet project. Former students may even speak fondly of it. Yet all of those reasons may not outweigh the practical considerations. 

Every course you offer demands time and resources. Holding on to an underperforming course can stunt program growth and negatively impact how students perceive your program. That’s a situation you just can’t afford.

If you’ve found this article, you’re probably thinking about cutting at least one course from your catalog. Before you make your decisions, we have five questions you should consider.

Why It’s Important to Trim Your Course Catalog

One last thing, before we jump into the five questions to help trim your course catalog, we should address the elephant in the room: Why trim your catalog at all? Can’t you just offer everything and cancel a class if enrollment is too low?

Well, yes. You could do that, but it might damage your credibility. Cancel a class too many times and the students who did want to take it will probably lose faith in your ability to deliver. They might wonder if all of your classes are like that.

Here are three more reasons to trim your course catalog regularly: 

  • Minimize choice overwhelm – Too many options can prevent students from committing to a class. It’s called choice overwhelm or decision fatigue and it can seriously stunt your enrollment numbers. 
  • Free-up resources – Offering and then canceling a class takes time and resources. You invest in marketing, instructors, and other essentials. When you trim underperforming courses you make more resources available for the rest of your catalog.
  • Keep your catalog fresh – Why do stores change their window displays? Because they want to attract attention or entice new customers to come in. If your course catalog looks the same every season, students might not even bother to look at it. After all, they already know what they’ll find. 

Now that you’re convinced trimming your course catalog is worth your time, it’s time to consider those five questions. 

1. Is the class making money (or at least breaking even)?

This might seem like an obvious yes or no question, but it can be more complicated than it appears. First, this question is difficult to answer if you don’t keep detailed records about student enrollments and costs. You might have to do some digging to get granular enough to fully answer this question.

Make sure your calculation includes: 

  • venue costs (or web hosting)
  • instructor reimbursement
  • utilities and cleaning fees
  • marketing costs
  • tuition or fees collected
  • insurance costs
  • cost of materials

Keep in mind that a class that operates at a loss might still be worth keeping if it helps you start a long-term relationship with students. For example, an introductory class might funnel students into big-ticket courses. While that intro class may only break even, it helps you make money over the long term. That means it’s still contributing to your bottom line even if the return on investment isn’t as straightforward. 

2. Is it helping you meet other goals? 

Making money isn’t the only reason your program exists. It might not even be the primary reason. If your program has a goal to improve financial literacy, give kids a safe place to go after school, or help working parents earn their diplomas, those goals should be part of your calculation. 

Of course, if the class isn’t making money you’ll need a way to defray the cost of keeping it in the catalog. This could come from grants, private funding, or offering other courses that do turn a profit. 

Even if the course is helping you act on your mission statement or vision goals, you still might consider removing it from the catalog. Consider whether you have other courses that are doing a better job of meeting those goals. How heavily would your mission be impacted if you stopped offering this class? 

Since most programs have finite resources, every course you offer is a trade-off. Think about the resources you would free up by dropping this class. Could those resources be used to create something that does an even better job of working toward your mission?

3. Have you ever canceled a session due to low registration numbers? 

It happens. Maybe the marketing didn’t get out there in time. Or you didn’t have automations in place to let students know a class was in danger of being canceled. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing. Students didn’t enroll this time, but they’ll jump on the next session. One canceled class is an invitation to learn and improve. Multiple canceled classes are signs of a deeper issue. 

If you’ve had to cancel this class in the past, look for patterns. You might notice that students don’t enroll for this particular session in the fall. Maybe one instructor attracts more enrollments than another. If the only pattern you spot is a downward trend in enrollments, it might be time to cut your losses and remove this class from your catalog.

4. Does the class fit with others in your course catalog? 

Students expect Bic to sell them pens and Microsoft to make software. They may also have some preconceived ideas about your program and what it can offer them. After all, most students probably don’t search through a Folk Arts program catalog when they’re looking for CPR classes.

While diversifying your reach can be a smart move, it may also work against you. Consider how this course fits into your overall offerings. Is there a clear connection between it and at least one other listing in your catalog? If not, students might wonder whether you’re really qualified to teach them this subject. Straying too far outside their expectations can be a hard sell. In that case, you have two options: remove the course or add on something that makes the connection.

5. What value does this class offer students?

Every course you offer is a promise to your students. In exchange for their time and money, you’ll give them something of value. This might be a new skill, a certification, or just a way to add a little extra fun into their life. Every course in your catalog should deliver on that promise. 

Equally important, you should know exactly what you’re delivering. If the value has decreased over time, you might want to consider whether the course is still worth offering. A class on how to use Windows XP might have been really valuable in 2001. Now it’s pretty much obsolete. 

Okay, that’s an extreme example, but that fact remains that your course must offer real value if it’s going to stay in your catalog. As a bonus, if you do decide to keep the class, getting clear on the value proposition makes marketing it a lot easier. 

Making the Hard Choice

Before you cancel any class for good, make sure you’ve given it a fair chance to succeed. That means you’ve done the best you can with marketing and promotion, you’ve sought out student feedback, and you’ve considered adjustments to the format or timing. If you’ve tried all of that, and the course is still underperforming, it might be time to cut your losses. 

Deciding to remove a class from your course catalog may not be an easy thing to do, but it can be the right thing. Just imagine all of the new opportunities you create when you let go of a class that’s no longer serving your organization or your students. It might let you offer trending courses or double-down on a class that has a waitlist. As long as you keep your students and your mission at the forefront of your decision-making, you can’t go wrong. 


Nic Lyons

Nic is skilled in scaling start-up edtech and education organizations to growth-stage success through innovative marketing. A former journalist and copywriter, Nic holds a postgraduate certificate in digital and print publishing from Columbia University School of Journalism's publishing course.

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