Taking a New Online Degree Program from Idea to Implementation

Taking a New Online Degree Program from Idea to Implementation

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

I have had the privilege of presenting at a variety of academic conferences throughout the country on a number of topics related to the administration of online education programs. One of the most common questions I get from participants following those presentations is “How can my institution get an online degree program up and running — fast?”

The question usually makes me cringe a bit because I’ve had this discussion so many times. Here’s what usually follows: I ask —

“Have you done market research?” — No.
“Do you know how the program will be funded?” — No.
“Do you have an online education policy and procedures manual at your institution?” — No.
“Are there professional development opportunities for your faculty related to teaching online?” — No.
“Is this idea coming from your faculty or central administrators?” — Central administrators.

I could continue with the other dozen or so questions I ask these folks, but you get the idea. Following these conversations, I think people truly begin to have an appreciation for how much work and effort is required to develop a program and have the educational and administrative infrastructure in place to ensure its success. And that really is the key: How will you ensure student success?

Institutional variations

The topic of online degree creation and approval is challenging to write about because the approval process can vary widely among institutions.

For example, the type and strength of faculty governance in place at a given institution can greatly impact this process. At most institutions, faculty oversee the curriculum. If there is a strong system of faculty governance in place, the process usually takes longer. But in my opinion, this scenario usually has a better outcome compared to institutions with weak faculty governance.

Ask why

When considering creating an online degree, it is important for faculty and administrators ask “why” early in the process: Why do we want or need to create this degree?

If the primary purpose is to generate additional revenue, be careful. However, if the motivation is to meet student demand, and if the degree aligns with your institution’s mission, and if you have a core group of qualified faculty in the degree area you are exploring, your chances of success are certainly enhanced.

Speaking of faculty, get them involved from the very beginning. I’ve previously written about the importance of faculty buy-in for online education. Buy-in is critical when considering creating an online program, especially the first time an online degree is being discussed or proposed on campus. If faculty sense that something is being pushed on them from central administrators, they are often hesitant, even resistant. So involve faculty early in the discussions about what the degree would look like, how it would be funded, the types of assurance mechanisms that would be in place to monitor quality, etc.

The process of creating a program

At many institutions the process begins with someone (e.g., a faculty member or administrator) having an idea for a new program. What should occur next is an evaluation of whether there are interested and qualified faculty to oversee and teach the courses that would make up a new program. Or are there financial resources — and faculty support — to hire additional faculty. Hiring new faculty can be difficult, as many colleges and universities are experiencing significant budget challenges, and many faculty believe their departments are already underfunded and lack adequate numbers of instructors.

The next step would likely be to demonstrate need or demand for the program. This is sometimes done in-house by looking at surveys and statistics from sources such as the National Association of Colleges and Employers or employment projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are also a variety of market research consulting firms that specialize in higher education and could be contracted to do this work.

Funding is another factor that should be examined early in the process. Will funds for program development come from general-purpose revenue dollars? If yes, that will likely mean less revenue available for other initiatives or units on campus. Will the new program be required to be self-sustaining? That is, will all program costs such as marketing, faculty salaries, etc., be covered by the tuition generated from the program?

Another important consideration is to have the infrastructure in place to support students and faculty. For example, online students may require technical support on evenings and weekends. Is this something your institution can provide? Other student support services such as access to the library, academic advising, disability resource services, counseling and tutoring services should be in place. Also, does your institution have the technical and pedagogical support instructors require to be successful teaching online?

Additionally, it is important to have an administrative structure in place to support online degree programs. This may include having someone on your campus who oversees online education, having an online education policy and procedures manual, and having a process in place to monitor the quality of courses developed and offered within the online degree.

Finding a leader

In my experience, once administrators and faculty are behind the idea of developing a new degree, it is extremely helpful to find someone to lead the effort, one person to shepherd the process. This person could work with faculty to determine the curriculum and who will teach the courses; get the new courses and program approved through the governance process; and determine what approval, if any, will be required from your regional accreditor. Don’t underestimate the amount of effort and work this requires. Many institutions provide release time or overload pay for individuals who take on this responsibility.

The approval process

Again, the actual approval process can vary widely across institutions, but it often follows a path such as this:

      1. Review and approval by a departmental curriculum oversight committee.


      2. Review and approval by a school/college-wide curriculum oversight committee.


      3. Review and approval by an Academic Dean.


      4. Review and approval by a university-wide curriculum oversight committee.


      5. Review and approval by the Provost.


      6. Review and approval by the Faculty Senate.


    7. Review and approval by the Chancellor.

I would encourage you to contact your institution’s regional accreditation liaison early in the process to discuss possible reviews or site visits associated with the creation of an online degree. The Higher Learning Commission accredits my institution, and it has established four approval levels related to new online degrees. Those levels are:

      1. The institution has not been approved for distance education


      2. Approval for distance education is limited to courses


      3. Approval for distance education is limited to courses and one program


    4. Approval for distance education courses and programs

The six regional accrediting organizations recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation are:

  • Higher Learning Commission
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission

Keep in mind that other accrediting agencies such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) might have requirements related to the proportion of faculty who are full time or other academic qualifications of instructors in a new degree.