Launching a New Program: Challenges and StrategiesSarah MacDonald | Director of Outreach and Engagement, James Madison University
Launching a new program in a continuing education unit—whether credit-bearing or non-credit—presents an exciting opportunity to provide access to higher education resources to a new population of students, meeting both their needs as well as regional economic and workforce development needs. However, it can also be full of potential pitfalls. The good news is that most of these challenges can be addressed ahead of time with proper planning and communication strategies.
The three biggest challenges include vague plans that don’t lead to success, faculty who weren’t consulted, and finding out after the fact that you’re not compliant with some kind of regulation. But each of these concerns can be tackled head-on to ensure program success.
The first challenge happens especially when a program is developed in a hurry, without sufficient planning. The first step in addressing this challenge is to conduct thorough market research to ensure that the audience for this program exists. Some questions to consider:
- Is the audience for this program available locally if we are planning a face-to-face program?
- Is online delivery the appropriate method for reaching the audience we’re seeking? If so, is online delivery the appropriate method for this kind of content?
- How will we know if this program is successful? What are the learning outcomes we want students to achieve? What would a successful enrollment target and financial model look like?
- How will this program be marketed? Do we have the resources to support it?
- Who will be responsible for finding instructors, evaluating program quality, and responding to student inquiries?
The second challenge occurs when there is inadequate interaction with faculty. At any institution of higher education, faculty are the most key resource. Sometimes when a new program comes to a continuing education unit seeking support, we assume that all the faculty in that department—as well as the department head (and dean, if applicable)—are both aware of and behind the program offering. While that assumption is true in many cases, it’s worth checking with all parties to be sure. This ensures that faculty buy-in is clear and established from the very beginning of program conceptualization. Even if the program is non-credit, faculty buy-in is still a relevant and important concept. It may be a much quicker process for a non-credit program, but it’s still worth checking with faculty in the relevant department(s) when applicable.
Finally, a challenge with starting a new program can be finding out after the fact that it’s out of compliance with some kind of regulation. While continuing education units may not be aware of all the applicable regulations and accreditation concerns, this challenge can be easily solved by involving as many units and offices on campus as possible in the planning stages. For credit-bearing programs, the financial aid office should be consulted early in the process to discuss financial aid, term scheduling, and other concerns. Even if the program ends up not being eligible for federal financial aid, the financial aid office can help ensure that all aspects have been considered before program launch. Other offices to consider including are veteran’s affairs, accreditation, curriculum, academic policy, business office, registrar, faculty development, and legal counsel. Some will be more applicable than others, depending on the program, but developing a network of contacts in those areas will ensure that no ugly surprises appear after a new program is launched. Ultimately, it’s critical that leaders have a process in place to ensure the necessary individuals review any new program before taking it to market. Of course, there’s an inherent challenge here in ensuring that revision happens in a timely and orderly way.
For continuing education units, new programs are often our lifeblood, helping us generate revenue and meet student and regional needs. Many of the challenges that come with new programs can be overcome with careful planning and communication with the right stakeholders on and off campus.
Author Perspective: Administrator