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College Quarterly
Winter 1994 - Volume 2 Number 2
Needs Assessment in Program Planning
by Grant L.Young
“As for the future, your task is not to foresee, but to enable it.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

When should a college or technical institute add a new program to its program configuration? This decision is critical in the academic program planning for a college or technical institute. The purpose of this article is to examine the role of needs assessment in the academic program planning processes undertaken in post-secondary technical education. Part One of this article will deal with the nature and purposes of needs assessment as a planning tool. Part Two will deal with conducting and utilizing needs assessments more effectively.

Because the world is rapidly changing, colleges are now facing a number of pressures or forces (some of which are in opposition), such as increasing demands for accessibility and equity in the face of decreasing resources; demands for more public accountability and the need for institutional autonomy; demands for quick responsiveness to needs yet maintaining high quality programs; and finally, pressures from the tremendous and accelerated changes taking place in a turbulent external environment. Dealing with such issues requires that colleges/institutes increase their responsiveness to individual learners needs, societal goals and aspirations, and economic development. With this perspective comes increased attention on the important role of valid, reliable needs assessments in the effective planning processes of post-secondary institutions.


A need can be seen as a problem that can be solved (McKillip, 1987) or as a gap between current outcomes and desired outcomes (Kaufman, 1979). It is the difference between “what is” and “what could be”. A needs assessment is a form of purposeful research in support of planning and decision-making, through analysing discrepancies or gaps, identifying problems, and arranging the needs in a priority order for resolution. A broader definition for needs assessment as an educational planning tool is “any systematic procedure for setting priorities and making decisions about allocation of educational resources” (Witkin, 1984, p. 35). The needs assessment is the preliminary examination of a situation to determine the potential for an educational program as a solution to a problem or a response to a need in the labour market or community. The needs assessment should examine and evaluate discrepancies and also facilitate the establishment of priorities of responses to the needs.

Approaches to Needs Assessment

While there is consensus in the literature on the general definition, there is no consensus on what comprises a need assessment (Witkin, 1984). There is no one right way to conduct the needs assessment that can suit all situations. There are a number of approaches and models of needs that have evolved since the formative days.

McKillip (1987) identifies three main types of needs assessment: (a) discrepancy model; (b) marketing model; and, (c) decision-making model. The most widely used model is the discrepancy model which focuses on assessing the gap between what is and what could (or ought to) be. The marketing model involves selecting a target population, choosing a competitive position and developing an effective marketing mix that meets the needs of the target population. The decision-making model, based on modelling and other techniques in applied research, involves three stages: problem modelling, quantification and final synthesis for decision-making. The needs assessment occurs at the initial problem modelling stage. For education, the discrepancy model continues to be the most widely used although its value is more conceptual than practical (Mosely & Heaney, 1994).

Role of Needs Assessment in Educational Planning

The importance of needs assessment to educational planning in general is well established in the literature (e.g. Kaufman, 1979; Witkin, 1984; Moseley & Heaney, 1994). Kaufman (1979) referred to needs assessment as “a tool for determining valid and useful problems which are philosophically as well as practically sound. It keeps us from running down more blind educational alleys, from using time, dollars, and people in attempted solutions which do not work” (p. 31). Witkin (1984) views needs assessments as “an essential part of the ongoing cycle of program planning, implementation, and evaluation; and that its purpose is to make decisions about priorities; that it must be viewed in context; and that there is no one correct or definitive procedure for all situations” (p. x). Moseley and Heaney (1994) verified the “importance of needs assessment as the first step of successful institutional planning and as a key preliminary step for long range planning” (p. 63), and that “in education, program planning requires a carefully thought-out well executed needs assessment” (p. 72).

In the context of adult education, Sork and Caffarella (1989) placed needs assessment as an essential step in their planning model. The six steps in the model include: (1) analyze planning context and client system, (2) assess needs, (3) develop program objectives, (4) formulate instructional plan, (5) formulate administrative plan, and (6) design a program evaluation plan (p. 234). One of the foundational beliefs inherent in the model is that “systematic planning is a powerful tool for designing effective, efficient, relevant and innovative educational programs” (p. 235). The needs assessment impacts on all the other steps in the model by identifying the critical needs which then directly shape the other aspects of program planning and subsequent resource allocations to meet those initial needs. With the continued financial pressures on colleges to manage with less resources, needs assessment is indeed a critical planning tool.

General Purposes of Needs Assessment

As a planning tool, a needs assessment plays a key role in the reduction of uncertainty for decision making (McKillip, 1987) and can serve a number of general purposes or functions. In the context of social and educational programs, McKillip (1987) outlined a range of the following possible purposes: (a) advocacy in funding requests; (b) budgeting to set funding priorities; (c) description for understanding or academic purposes; (d) evaluation; (e) planning for decision making about program implementation; and, (f) testimony to create awareness of situation (p. 19). From a community college perspective (Morgan & Feldman, 1977), needs assessments can also: (a) determine a process for identifying and documenting valid measurable objectives, (b) provide a realistic, empirical basis for the selection of programs and resources, and (c) provide measurable criteria for evaluation of educational programs, projects and services (p. 49).

Needs assessments in post-secondary education are preliminary analyses or diagnoses required prior to designing an educational activity or intervention. An analogy can be made to other professional practices such as doctors diagnosing before prescribing, architects conducting preliminary studies or engineers scoping a project before any work starts. The needs assessment provides supportive data to justify focusing on some needs and not others, often outlined in the form of proposals for specific responses or actions (Bohnen, 1988). The public mandates in higher education usually “require formal, comprehensive needs assessments - especially in terms of accreditation, grants, and justification for new and/or continuing programs” (Moseley and Heaney, 1994, p. 72). As such, needs assessments provide a means of responding to a changing environment and a changing future.

Needs assessments contribute to the overall accountability and relevance of the institution and assist in “documenting the degree to which the management decisions which are made result in programs which meet the needs of the community” (Morgan & Feldman, 1977. p. 48). This can impact on the credibility of the college if programs do not meet the needs of community (Baker, 1984). Kaufman (1979) concurs and views it contributing to “a type of 'truth-in-labelling' pledge for education - we will tell what we intend to do, why we intend to do it, what results we expect, and document the results we achieved” (p. 20). This also illustrates the key link between needs assessment which occurs before a program is implemented and program evaluation which then occurs during and/or after program implementation.

In dealing with the external community, other important considerations for conducting needs assessments include involving stakeholders in program decision making and reducing conflict or resistance in the community while increasing motivation and commitment (Baker, 1984). This social aspect of planning is becoming more important especially to publicly funded institutions. Recently, Cervero and Wilson (1994) critiqued the over-emphasis on technical aspects of educational planning in adult education, and called for more attention on the social aspect through negotiated interests. “An educational program is never constructed by a single planner acting outside an institutional and social context. Rather, programs are constructed by people with multiple interests working in specific institutional contexts that profoundly affect their content and form” (p. 28). Needs assessment could become one forum for this kind of negotiated planning process.

Finally, from a student perspective, the overarching purpose for conducting needs assessments is “to discern the educational needs of potential students so that we may serve them better, and through them, better meet the learning needs of our collective society” (Cross, 1983, p. 196). The post-secondary college also needs to match this with the skill deficiencies present in the labour market. This leads us to the specific purposes for needs assessment.

Specific Purposes of Needs Assessment

There are four specific inter-related purposes that needs assessment fulfills in the context of post-secondary vocational-technical education: (a) identify labour market needs; (b) identify training needs of a specific target group; (c) determine the feasibility for the college to offer a training program; and, (d) identify curriculum requirements for instructional design. These purposes are usually called for by the academic planning and decision making processes at the college. For example, at Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) the needs assessment must accompany an initial concept proposal which initiates an academic review as part of a formal program approval process (SIAST Academic Program Committee, 1994).

The first purpose, to identify labour market needs (Bohnen, 1988), can focus on general requirements for a region, on generic employment skills, or on specific occupational skill shortages. The primary goal is to identify labour market needs and determine the kind of education/training activities that would respond to those needs by providing employment or entry to further related education/training. In terms of starting a new program, the assessment needs to consider whether or not the college should offer this new program; for an existing program the assessment should examine whether or not the college should continue to offer this program.

The second purpose, to identify the training needs of a target group (Bohnen, 1988) is linked closely with the first purpose and may be the focus for a study or included with a labour market assessment in a combined study. This training needs assessment examines “why certain groups are experiencing high levels of unemployment or underemployment and the skills that training can offer to encourage satisfactory employment” (p. 35). The training needs assessment looks at the characteristics of the group, its training needs and interests and any societal barriers that may exist for the group. This information can also be used in the design and implementation of the program once approved or funded. A potential side benefit of this type of assessment is the building of community support for the program and its graduates.

The third purpose is to determine the feasibility of the college offering a training program in response to an identified need, and could also be called a feasibility study. This form of assessment examines and answers questions about the college's ability to respond to the need in terms of its mandate, organization, and resources. Some factors to consider in the feasibility study include: curriculum development needed, capital and equipment, facilities, human resources, and other impacts on the college infrastructure (e.g. registrar's office, student services, library, etc.).

Finally, in the fourth purpose, needs assessment may be used to identify curriculum requirements for instructional design purposes. Needs assessment in this instance is more like a task analysis involving a specific analysis of the task of an occupational role prior to designing instruction. For example, Misanchuk (1984) identified three need components for any job task: “the competence or ability of the individual to perform the task or skill, the relevance of the task or skill for the individual's particular job role, and the individual's desire to undertake training in the task or skill” (p. 28). However, this may require considerable effort and resources and is therefore usually undertaken after the previous three purposes have been achieved, and as part of specific program development requirements once a new program has been approved.

Once the specific purpose is determined, the needs assessment can be planned and conducted with the results being used for planning and decision making. In the second part of this two-part series, we will examine guidelines for conducting the needs assessment effectively.


Needs assessments are essential to academic program planning in post-secondary education. As a planning tool, needs assessments have a number of potential general purposes: diagnosing a situation, responding to a changing external environment, contributing to institutional accountability, and involving the community in decision making. As well, needs assessments have four specific focuses: labour market needs, training needs for specific target populations, feasibility of the college to respond to identified needs, and specific curriculum requirements for instructional design of programs.


Baker, H. R. (1984). The program planning process. In D. J. Blackburn, (ed.), Extension handbook (pp. 50-64). Guelph: University of Guelph.

Bohnen, E. D. (1988). Effective proposal development: A how-to manual for skills training programs. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Skills Development/George Brown College.

Cervero, R. M. & Wilson, A. L. (1994). Planning responsibly for adult education: A guide to negotiating power and interests. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cross, K. P. (1983). The state of the art in needs assessments. Community/Junior College Quarterly, 7, 195-206.

Kaufman, R. (1979). Why needs assessment. In R. Kaufman & F. W. English (eds.), Needs assessment: Concept and application (pp. 7-36). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

McKillip, J. (1987). Need analysis: Tools for the human services and education. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Misanchuk, E. R. (1984). Analysis of multi-component educational and training needs. Journal of Instructional Development, 7 (1), 28-33.

Morgan, L. & Feldman, D. (1977). Needs assessment in higher education: The Mott foundation community college model. Educational Technology, 17 (11), 48-52.

Moseley, J. L. & Heaney, M. J. (1994). Needs assessment across disciplines. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 7 (1), 60-79.

SIAST Academic Program Committee. (1994). SIAST proposal formats: New credit programs and requests for changes to existing programs. Saskatoon: SIAST.

Sork, T. J. & Cafferella, R. S. (1989). Planning programs for adults. In S. B. Merriam & P. M. Cunningham (eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education, (pp. 233-244). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Witkin, B. R. (1984). Assessing needs in educational and social programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Grant L. Young is Program Consultant at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.