Published on 2016/11/18

Overcoming Barriers to New Program Development


The EvoLLLution | Overcoming Barriers to New Program Development
Getting programs to market quickly is more important today than ever before given how quickly the labor market moves and the growing trend of adults looking for just-in-time learning opportunities.

Developing new academic programs can be a powerful means through which universities evolve, meet the changing needs of student, workplace, and society, attract new audiences, differentiate themselves from others and thereby stay relevant and competitive in the increasing complex higher education sector. The process for developing new academic programs varies considerably among institutions, as do the challenges faced in launching them.[1]

Despite this variation, five common barriers exist to the development of new academic programs and finding a solution can be key to institutional growth and success.

1. Expedite the Process:

Higher education institutions are masters of developing lengthy and sometimes complex processes for new academic program development. A quick internet search will produce page after page of the processes, criteria, and forms at colleges and universities across the world. These are central to the academy and important to ensure institutional fit, academic integrity, market feasibility, and financial viability.[2, 3] Often there is a shared governance curriculum process that is needed in addition. However, they can also be so daunting as to stifle the development process.

Organizations steeped in long histories may overcome this barrier by asking whether their once useful process is still relevant for the organization’s current and future culture and needs. More streamlined approaches can be achieved by asking the purpose of each step in the process, whether particular checks and balances need to be embedded in the process itself or can be accomplished elsewhere in the institution, and whether the individual steps or process as a whole are relevant today. Institutions may also consider an expedited program approval process for particular types of programs, such as those with a minimal initial financial needs and/or those with a rapid trajectory for sustainability. Such programs include those for non-traditional students, niche programs for specialized audiences, rapidly emerging workplace needs or transient workplace program needs, graduate certificates, and those whose initial development is funded or otherwise supported by external grants and contracts.

Combining a fast track approval process with the approach of sprint teams working in a compressed and highly focused time frame could be particularly powerful in stimulating new program development.[4]

2. Lighten the Load:

Faculty immersed in their discipline and its application have many ideas for new programs. However, many lack the expertise and data needed to conduct environmental scans, needs analyses, and feasibility studies, and to develop a business case and plan for the new program.

One solution to this barrier is to develop a centralized service and repository of data to support faculty on an ongoing basis. Good partners in this effort are an institution’s continuing education and workforce development units, which are naturally plugged into the critical data and benchmarking sources needed to demonstrate the need for a new program. A centralized support, with its greater level of resources, can serve as a more potent aggregator and provide a more robust set of data than an individual faculty member or academic department working on their own.[5]

Barriers to the creation of the business case and plan can be overcome by fostering a collaborative relationship between the faculty and someone who understands the budget and finance aspects so that this key information is developed early in the process versus vetting the business plan at the end of the process.

3. Cultivate Champions:

 While many faculty and departments recognize the value of developing new programs, the immediate demands of teaching, advising, research, scholarship and service often take precedence over new program development in the competition for limited time and attention. The commitment of relatively modest incentives for individual faculty, departments, or colleges can lead to a greater return on investment in the long term. Such incentives can include stipends, as well as professional development, travel and research grants. This approach is consistent with their widespread use to reward and incentivize research, the adoption of new pedagogies and technologies in teaching and learning, and professional development.

At Shippensburg University, a New Program Development Grant Program was established to foster the development of new academic programs in strategic areas through summer stipends provided to individual and teams of faculty.[6] To date, this program has fostered the development of twelve new programs in the span of two years, where some programs are the first stackable step toward a degree.

4. Leverage Expertise:

 Investing in wholly new programs can be a tough and expensive proposition, and can stop new program development dead in its tracks. Developing programs in disciplines beyond the institution’s current scope may be deemed a strategic investment in the future. But leveraging existing expertise can shorten the development phase and the timeline to return on investment. Repackaging an institution’s courses into new, different and stackable programs is perhaps the fastest on-ramp, as courses are already in the inventory and faculty already available to teach them.

For institutions that remain relatively siloed, partnering on new programs across departments and colleges can lead to multidisciplinary and cutting-edge programs that otherwise would not be possible. This strategy also widens the internal net of those engaged and whose departments/colleges may benefit (increased enrollments and revenue) from new program development.

Acting even more non-traditionally, institutions can adopt the approach of X-teams for new program development.[7] Such teams are externally focused, adaptive and flexible, and can be achieved by broadening new program development teams to include non-faculty members of its institution, as well as external advisory board members and workplace representatives, as content experts. The academic content expertise and knowledge at most institutions is not limited to faculty, and such individuals can contribute substantially to the design of courses, syllabi, assessments and program evaluation. In addition, a university can consider adding faculty and non-faculty personnel from a partner school. For example, a university could incorporate personnel from one of its feeder community colleges. This approach can help an institution break through content barriers, while also preserving resources in the developmental phase.

5. Culture:

Change the culture to an entrepreneurial mindset instead of a purely academic mindset. To foster this kind of culture, add incentives for new program development as well as safety nets so that risk aversion is minimized. Adopt profit sharing where it has not existed before, or just in the case of new programs for a limited period of time (e.g. first 3 to 5 years). Encourage faculty to develop programs that are unique or emerging, a differentiating factor for the institution, programs that will be productive (i.e. high enrollments and graduates), and mutually beneficial for the academic department or faculty members’ professional interests. Or run new programs fully offload with the intention to move them onload with potentially new supporting faculty lines and resources once they have proven to be sustainable.

In doing so, the culture learns to be patient and play the long game since a positive impact may not be immediately tangible. Running new programs fully offload can also help the culture become comfortable with a certain level of risk and the possibility of failure that comes with being innovative.[8] Additionally, reward faculty for developing programs regardless of their success or failure. Ensure that tenure and promotion is linked to development and not to success of new programs.


[1] MacDonald, S. (2015) Launching a New Program: Challenges and Strategies. EvoLLLution, April 1.

[2] Morriss-Olson, M. (2016) Is it Time to Launch that New Academic Program? The Art and Science of Answering that Question. Academic Impressions, June 14.

[3] Morriss-Olson, M. (2016) Feasibility Checklist: The Science of Bringing New Academic Programs to Life. Academic Impressions, July 18.

[4] Zeratsky, J. (2016) Sprints Are the Secret to Getting More Done. Harvard Business Review, March 15.

[5] Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (2016) Pennsylvania’s Supply/Demand Gap Analysis: A Report for Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

[6] Shippensburg University (2015) New Academic Program Development (NAPD) Grants.

[7] Ancona, D., Bresman H., Kaeufer, K. (2002) The Comparative Advantage of X-Teams. MIT Sloan Management Review, April 15.

[8] Sinfield, J.V. and Solis, F. (2016) Finding a Lower-Risk Path to High-Impact Innovations. MITSloan Management Review, Summer.

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