How to Build an Academic Program

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Cairn University has a long history of preparing pastors, social workers, teachers, and musicians to serve Christ in the church, society, and the world. However, many alumni and friends of the University have recognized that Cairn now has students majoring in graphic design, pre-med, psychology, information systems, finance, and politics, among other new options. New majors such as these have afforded alumni new opportunities to impact the world for Christ. Cairn students are entering internships and job placements in industries and settings that were, until recently, unexplored for the University. Our institution is seeing God use our alumni in new and exciting fields. These alumni studied under experienced and effective faculty who delivered a high quality education.

We have developed dozens of new majors over the past 10 years. As a result, members of the Cairn community o en learn of a new program or meet a student from a major that they did not realize was offered. By that time, the program has been fully developed and launched; however, we rarely take a look behind the scenes to see what transpired to get to that point. This article provides a brief glimpse into the program development process, answering the question, “How does Cairn start a new program?”

The Blueprints

The first phase of the academic program development process is dominated by research and planning. We need to know what majors are in demand, decide which fit our mission, and determine the resources and requirements needed to make it happen.

Identify a program to develop.
Programs are selected based on their fit with the mission of the University and the three-year strategic plan to grow the University in specific areas. A clear rationale for the expansion must be established at the start of the exploration.

Frame the program goals.
Preliminary student outcomes guide program needs such as facility and faculty requirements to help delimit the scope of the program.

Establish the target market.
The viability of a program depends on market research that indicates students will populate the program. Likely pools of mission-fit students must be identified before an investment in program development occurs.

Determine the relevant accreditation requirements.
In addition to regional accreditation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, many programs have a programmatic accrediting body. Each accrediting body has similar but also vastly different requirements related to their area of accreditation. The requirements and expenses related to those requirements must be understood early in the process.

Build a budget.
The budget is based on the capacity of the current faculty, technology, marketing, admissions, library resources, and facilities. Once the scope of the program is understood, a preliminary budget that addresses both expenses and revenue is developed for review.

The Build

After a series of reviews and approvals, the second phase builds out all of the components of the proposal. We need to unpack details of the curriculum and develop marketing and recruitment strategies.

Develop program objectives and assessment plans.
Detailed learning targets and the corresponding assessments guide detailed course development.

Build courses.
New programs are designed using a combination of existing courses and courses that need to be developed.

Define admissions and enrollment processes.
Prospective students need to meet the entry requirements of both university and programmatic accreditation bodies.

Develop marketing strategy and materials.
Marketing materials are developed. Academic leaders and marketing specialists cooperate to develop strategy and create electronic and print materials for recruitment.

Update and purchase library resources.
As the University expands into new programmatic areas, the library collection expands with it. In addition to print and eBooks, new databases are acquired that provide students with access to the latest research in the field.

Update back-end systems.
All electronic platforms need to be prepared to recognize the existence of the new program so students can be properly assigned.

Pursue accreditation processes.
Following up on the accreditation requirements, initial program approval documents are submitted and site visits are scheduled as needed.

Identify faculty internally or externally.
When a new program is closely related to an existing program, minimal hiring takes place. However, programs that stretch the University in a completely new direction o en require multiple new hires. In this stage, faculty are recruited using multiple platforms.

Acquire equipment or technology.
Students need to work with the latest technologies in the discipline as they prepare to serve.

Approve the program.
Final approval of the program is completed by the school sponsoring the program, the Academic Leadership Team, and the President’s Cabinet.

The Beginning

Finally, the program launches. In this third phase, future students are recruited, faculty are structured to lead and advise, and both program effectiveness and educational requirements are assessed and maintained.

Market the program and recruit students.
Admissions is tasked with recruiting mission-fit students who have an interest in the new program.

Hire new or assign current faculty.
In addition to teaching faculty, program advisors or department chairs are formally assigned to lead, maintain, and improve the program.

Continually assess and refine the program.
Program evaluation and improvement continues both informally and formally throughout the life of the program. Some accreditation processes cannot be completed until students successfully complete the new program.

Adding academic programs at Cairn ultimately comes down to accomplishing our mission: to educate students to serve Christ in the church, society, and the world. An essential part of that mission is equipping students to be biblically minded, well-educated, and professionally competent in a broad range of important and developing fields. See our growing number of programs at

Dr. Jason VanBillard is the senior vice president and provost at Cairn University. He can be reached at