Published on 2015/04/07

Overcoming Challenges to the Degree Approval Process

The EvoLLLution | Overcoming Challenges to the Degree Approval Process
Although there are significant hurdles to new program development, overcoming them is critical for institutions that want to be able to offer relevant and high-demand programming.

Launching a new degree program is comparable to rolling out a new product on the consumer market. Each of these initiatives has significant obstacles to overcome, including internal and external approval processes, determination of target markets, and ability to obtain resources to support the product, not to mention the mountains of guesswork that goes into predictions of its success.

For a college or university, though, the task is a bit more difficult because the nature of the environment is, well, collegial. Multiple levels of employees, administrators, faculty and others must weigh in on the approval process prior to its launch, and the entities involved don’t stop at the entrance to the campus.

However, colleges and universities are constantly shifting, restructuring and building new degree programs. As the government puts more emphasis on “gainful employment” and the demands of a global economy exerts pressure for productive graduates to fill job voids, colleges have recently responded by creating more innovative and collaborative degrees related to real-world learning.

These don’t just happen.

The process usually works something like this: An academic department or program identifies a potential degree program and begins researching the following pertinent issues:

  • Does it fit our institution mission, values and culture?
  • Is there a bona fide need? What is the workforce demand?
  • Does it duplicate any degrees already out there? Will it replace older options that we offer currently?
  • What are the ultimate learning goals for this degree? What should a graduate of this program be able to do?

These questions, and more, are asked as the approval process typically runs through the chain of command through curriculum committees, various levels of administrative leadership, and usually culminating at the level of the institution’s governing board.

So what are the largest obstacles to this process?

1. Time

Because so many institutional constituents have a stake in the development of a new program, the time it takes to vet it and obtain input can be exhaustive. Considerations about program assessment, quality assurance, academic integrity and following uniform approval practices can significantly lengthen the time and sap the energy of the strongest proponents of the program.

In addition, external forces may delay progress as well. Accrediting bodies, state approving agencies, and other outside groups must of necessity be included in the debate, as few programs will survive without the rubber stamp of credibility. Even more important is ensuring the ability to award financial aid for these programs, as most students must use funding to obtain their degrees.

2. Resources

All new programs require some kind of resources, whether they are new technology, lab equipment, additional or special classrooms, or even qualified faculty. Identifying and obtaining these resources can be a challenge, especially if the degree program you are hoping to develop is on the cutting edge. Maybe the technology is so new, it is difficult to obtain. Perhaps there are very few experts out in the field who are competent to teach your classes.

3. Unpredictability

Bottom line, any new degree program is a gamble. Enrollment projections and revenue predictions aside, the success of a new program resides solely with the customers, our students. Though we may build it, if they don’t come, it will fall flat on its face. A brand new innovative degree program may be just what the workforce needs, but if employers are unfamiliar with the degree or brand, they may be unwilling to take a chance on a new graduate in that area.

Overcoming the Obstacles

Forward-thinking governing boards can create uniform and streamlined methods for reviewing and approving new degree program requests. Having a consistent template will allow for quicker internal movement. Creating specific roles for the purpose of managing the degree approval process and appointing people with strong project management skills to serve in those positions would allow for better organization and speedier turnaround times. These same people can deftly navigate the most difficult waters of accrediting and state agencies by keeping them posted on progress and asking for assistance and support throughout the entire development of the degree.

Using external consultants well versed in the science of predicting enrollments and revenues through demographic metrics would help with strategic plans as well. In fact, the degree approval process can be best managed by making a concerted effort to have specific plans and people in place to work this process, so that innovation isn’t something that “just happens” but is rather an aggressive drive toward keeping the institution viable into the future and addressing the needs and demands of students in that future state.

Strong connections to industry advisory boards, filled with top-level company officers from businesses who would benefit from an influx of newly degreed workers is a must. Colleges must cultivate and maintain relationships with companies who can not only provide the real-world perspective of what’s needed in their industry, but also will hopefully hire the graduates that are produced.

Society has historically looked to the college environment as the primary place where invention occurs, and in today’s fast-paced world where skills must change rapidly, colleges should be equipped and prepared to carry that torch forward through the continual launch of innovative programs.

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