In lean financial times, colleges and universities need to ask themselves whether to take a conservative approach to new program development or to scan aggressively for growth markets, seeking opportunities to invest in the future. In the case of University of Mount Union (UMU), we took a more aggressive approach toward investing in the future, and the investments are paying off.

As a primarily undergraduate university rooted in the liberal arts, UMU launched new graduate programs in 2009 and 2011. It also launched undergraduate engineering and nursing programs, and 10 other programs. By fall 2014, the graduate programs began to contribute significantly to the university’s revenue. Among the incoming undergraduate cohort, 16 percent chose the newly developed engineering and nursing majors. With the addition of these prudently selected programs, UMU was able to maintain stable enrollment and revenue despite the declining high school demographics in the region.

UMU’s process for establishing new programs and the lessons the university has learned are detailed in this article.

Process revisited

A standard process has now been established for any new program development. The process can be divided into five stages, and each stage can last from one semester to over two years (see Table 1).

Table 1: New Program Development Process
Stage Tasks Note
Genesis Vision Statement and Brainstorming Ideas are collected from any member of the campus community (e.g., faculty, administrators, coaches, admissions representative).
Investigation Stage Feasibility Study A feasibility study to address criteria and needs analysis is completed. External consultants are hired occasionally for expertise or data collection.
Financial Plan and Forecasting This plan includes a five-year projection of all costs and expenses for the new program.
Appointment of a Lead Person The provost (VP academic affairs) appoints a person on campus to lead the new program process.

Approval Stage

Faculty and Board of Trustees Approval Feasibility study and financial projection dates are provided for evaluation and discussion.
Curriculum Development Plan Strategies include site visits and consultant advice.
Application for Accreditation Usually, the new program needs to seek state, federal, and/or professional accreditation agency approval.
Activation Stage Hiring Plan Hiring usually starts a year or two ahead of program implementation.
Marketing and Recruitment Appropriate campus departments are involved.
Campus Readiness Related departments prepare for new students and majors (e.g., library, student affairs).
Accreditation Approval It takes approximately three months to a year after submission before a new program receives necessary approvals to proceed.

Postestablishment Stage

Faculty Development, Student Learning Assessment, and Organizational Nurturing Faculty development is essential. Granting time and resources to allow faculty to work on program development and implementation is key. Tying these activities to promotion and tenure criteria is critical.

Internally, the Office of Academic Affairs starts the process by conducting a feasibility study of a potential program. UMU has a culture of strong faculty governance. All potential new programs are approved by faculty and the board of trustees before seeking external accreditation. While faculty members’ attention is mostly on issues such as the curriculum, faculty hiring, and students’ needs, the board of trustees usually focuses on the marketability, the facility, and the financial feasibility of the new program.

Externally, a potential new program usually needs to receive accreditation from the state, the regional accreditation body, and sometimes a professional accreditation agency.

Lessons learned

There are always challenging ambiguities to resolve when considering to add a program, such as how many students can be anticipated for each cohort or how to manage the growing pains of a university with a long history. The lessons we learned will be helpful in terms of managing resources, maintaining institutional identity, and sustaining long-term development.

  1. Reaffirming the institutional mission. UMU’s mission is “to prepare students for fulfilling lives, meaningful work and responsible citizenship.” Career-oriented majors were first introduced in 1986. The recent additions of new programs are both reflections of UMU’s unique mission and scope and consistent with regional, national, and global educational trends.
  2. Selecting the right criteria. When deciding which program to add and when to add it, UMU has identified five criteria for use in the feasibility study and the decision-making process:
  1. Mission compatibility
  2. Market need (appeal to incoming students and expand career opportunities for graduates)
  3. Ability to attract academically prepared students (students who are at or above the current student academic profile)
  4. Fiscal responsibility
  5. Sustainability

Each criterion can be supported by data. Take criterion 2 as an example. To demonstrate the market needs of our potential master of arts in educational leadership program, the assessment team provided data such as the percentage of teachers in the area who did not have a master’s degree, the number of teachers in our area who were getting degrees through distance learning programs, survey results of UMU alumni, survey results of teachers in the area, and the recent policy change in teacher promotion in Ohio. The assessment team also researched 10 competitive institutions that were already offering a master’s degree in education to consider tuition rates and delivery modes. Based on these data, we made a decision to deliver UMU’s master of arts in educational leadership degree in a hybrid format. Candidates would earn two-thirds of the credits online and the remaining credits through two summer residency semesters on campus.

  1. Appointing the right team. At the investigation stage of new program development, it is essential to assemble a core group of people with diverse expertise. The lead person appointed during preparation for the undergraduate civil and mechanical engineering programs was an associate academic dean who holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering. The university also formed an engineering advisory board with members drawn from local businesses, faculty, administrators, and alumni. The team worked effectively for over two years to begin the curriculum design, build the facilities, recruit the students, and raise funds for scholarships.
  2. Building a thorough financial plan. Most potential new programs have a strong vision with which to start, but the planners fail to consider many hidden costs that are not apparent in the feasibility study or vision statement. UMU’s process includes development of a thorough financial plan that makes explicit all possible revenues and costs for the first five years of the new program’s operation. For a typical financial plan, see Table 2.
Table 2: Financial Plan Components
Expenses Revenue
Faculty searches
Faculty salary and benefits
Faculty development
Support staff
Departmental budget
Equipment and technology
Curriculum development
Tuition from projected enrollment
Endowment for new programs
New development opportunities
  1. Communicating with multiple constituents. Communication is the key to building faculty, administration, and trustee buy-in. Never skimp on the time and energy required for communication and consultation in many formats, such as luncheons, magazines, faculty meetings, websites, newsletters, surveys, and community events.

Take the nursing program’s initial stage communication plan as an example. The first communication was a strategic planning survey asking faculty members what new programs they would love to see developed. Nursing received the highest number of recommendations. When the dean of the university appointed the lead person, a newly appointed associate academic dean, he spoke with the chairs whose departments would be involved in the curriculum building of the new program, such as chemistry, psychology, sociology, and biology. The first draft of the feasibility study was placed on the campus website for the entire campus community to review. Two open forums provided opportunities for faculty and staff to raise questions and discuss concerns. After the forums, the most frequently asked questions were put on the website and revisions were made to the feasibility report.

Another strategic move in communication was that the academic policies committee acted as the convener and facilitator of all communications in the initial stage. The result of such transparent and focused communication was that when the full proposal to establish a nursing program was submitted to the faculty for approval, it received a unanimous vote.

While the program development process and the criteria guide our decision making, each potential new academic program brings unique challenges, so the learning continues. Academic leaders’ unrelenting challenge is to get the program launched and ensure its continuous improvement.

Patricia H. Draves, PhD, is vice president for academic affairs, dean of the university, and professor of chemistry at the University of Mount Union.

Fang Du, PhD, is director of assessment and program development at the University of Mount Union. Her last book is titled Self-Authorship as a Learning Outcome of Study Abroad: Towards a New Approach of Examining Learning and Learning Conditions, published by the Scholar’s Press in 2013.


Reprinted from Academic Leader, 31.11 (2015): 4, 5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.