Colleges Should Look Before They Leap Into Health-Sciences Education, Report Advises

By ELIZABETH F. FARRELL
The Chronicle of Higher Education
October 15, 2003

Colleges that plan to expand their health-sciences programs will not benefit from the growing demand for health-care professionals unless they carefully consider all of the economic factors driving that need, according to a report released on Tuesday by Eduventures, a market-research company based in Boston.

The report, "Health Sciences Education Under the Microscope," highlights the top 10 fields of growth in health sciences -- including nursing, medical assistant, and clinical laboratory technician -- and analyzes the circumstances influencing the need for more professionals in those specialties.

"Despite the tremendous size of the health-sciences-education opportunity, the size and scope of the professional and educational landscape can make it difficult for educational institutions to identify the most attractive program-area growth opportunities," according to the report.

By calculating average tuitions and enrollments, based on government data, Eduventures estimates that the market in health-sciences education accounts for 5 percent of enrollments and $6-billion in expenditures among all American higher-education institutions.

Many for-profit education companies have recently spent heavily on health-sciences education, based on the assumption that more students will take an interest in such training. In the past year, the Career Education Corporation purchased the Whitman Education Group, which owns the Ultrasound Diagnostic School system, for $230-million.

At the same time, the Education Management Corporation bought the South University system, consisting of four campuses that offer nursing and medical-technology training, for $50-million. DeVry Inc. and Corinthian Colleges have also continued expanding the size and number of programs they offer in the fields, and "every company in the education sector has demonstrated great interest" in similar opportunities, according to Howard Block, a managing director for the education-services sector at Banc of America Securities.

But the high cost of starting health-sciences programs, such as the need to purchase expensive equipment, and the low faculty-to-student ratio necessary for many specialties, such as nursing, can limit profits, so new ventures should be chosen selectively, according to the report. Moreover, all growth is not created equal, it says. For example, health-information management has seen relatively small growth, while the demand for dental assistants has actually declined.

Furthermore, enrollment in the health sciences tends to subside when the economy is stronger, suggesting that the potential market of students might be smaller than anticipated if there are other job prospects outside the medical field.