Setting Academic Priorities, Identifying Signature Programs

What are your institution’s signature programs—those programs that epitomize your institution’s mission and define its distinctiveness in the marketplace? It’s a question that every institution should address, particularly when faced with increasing competition and decreasing resources, says Jonnie Guerra, vice president for academic affairs at Cabrini College in Pennsylvania.

Cabrini College is currently in the process of setting its academic priorities by defining its signature programs (i.e., selecting programs for targeted investment over the next five to 10 years) with the help of an outside consultant. Academic Leader recently spoke with Guerra and Carol Guardo—independent consultant and former president of the College of St. Benedict, Great Lakes Colleges Association, and Rhode Island College—about the process and how other institutions might undertake a similar process.

Collect data, solicit candidates

Before selecting signature programs, the institution must do a significant amount of “homework,” gathering data on the number of full-time and part-time faculty, faculty compensation, faculty teaching assignments, enrollment numbers, cost per student credit hour in each program, retention patterns, and graduation rates. “You need to ask, ‘Is this academic area receiving the kind of support that you would expect in this kind of institution?’ Everything doesn’t need to be normative, but you want to make that choice deliberately, not by default,” Guardo says.

The next step is to solicit candidates for signature program status. These can be discipline-specific programs or programs that span numerous departments and majors, such as experiential learning programs or first-year experience programs. “‘Signature’ does not mean it’s limited to a major. I know of an institution that has made experiential learning its signature element, and the institution has begun by increasing its efforts in international education and undergraduate research as part of making experiential learning its signature element. It really is institution specific. You have to look at the particular makeup of that institution programmatically and in terms of the educational philosophy that that institution is trying to convey,” Guardo says.

Questions asked of each signature program candidate at Cabrini fall into three categories: resources, demand, and impact. “There were not as many candidates as I had initially imagined. I think there were departments that realized that they simply didn’t have the numbers to qualify for consideration for signature status, so they didn’t put forward a proposal,” Guerra says.

Even those programs that did not submit a proposal have developed signature elements. For example, Cabrini does not have a large number of students enrolled in its foreign-language program, but the program has developed a series of introductory and intermediate courses designed specifically for students in education, business, social services, and the health professions. “That was a way for them to do something that is distinctive even though they could not currently become a candidate for signature program status,” Guerra says.

Selection process

Choosing programs for signature status should involve a diverse group of stakeholders. At Cabrini, this group includes the dean of academic affairs, department chairs, key faculty members, the president, the academic affairs committee, and the entire board of trustees.

The academic council, which is made up of all the department chairs and key administrators, developed the signature program criteria. The final selection of signature programs falls to Guerra. “I’m not sure that we’re actually going to bring everything to a vote of every governance body at the college. I think that we certainly will have conversations with the appropriate governance bodies—the academic council, the curriculum committee, and the full faculty—but ultimately I will most likely draft a proposal and get feedback on it, and hopefully get the endorsement of the various groups. But if not every group is willing to endorse this, the board [of trustees] has already endorsed it in principle, and we’ll move ahead on it,” Guerra says.

This decision-making process will vary by institution, but, Guardo says, “I think it’s very important for your board of trustees to know that this is under way, because it is a basic policy question when you’re talking about mission and market.”

Resource reallocation

Signature program designation is an internal distinction that helps determine resource allocation and is usually not used to market programs to the public. However, those designated as signature programs might receive more resources to raise their visibility. These may include developing a financial aid strategy tailored to the signature programs or endowed professorships.

Identifying signature programs can be a great help with fund-raising. Marketing, communications, and fund-raising staff at institutions that have identified signature programs feel that they can be more effective in their fund-raising efforts when they can tout a specific program rather than more amorphous priorities, Guardo says.

Although signature programs may attract more attention and funding, identifying key programs will inevitably result in reallocation of resources. “When you do your initial analysis, you look at all your resources—faculty resources, facilities, financial resources—that go into the academic areas. Maximizing these allocations is an ongoing process. One might stop allocation entirely to a given area and phase that out in order to put those resources elsewhere. I think most institutions are looking at reallocation rather than adding more resources,” Guardo says.

Reallocating resources is bound to cause conflict, which is why it is important to base decisions on an analysis of facts such as cost analysis and 10-year enrollment projections. The analysis from an outside expert can add credibility to resource reallocation decisions. “There are things that people will hear more easily coming from somebody who is external,” Guerra says.

Although the selections have not yet been made, this process has caused departments to think more critically about their programs. “I have found that departments that have recognized that they aren’t going to be considered signature programs have nonetheless taken steps to improve, and I think that has been very beneficial—that they are more interested in developing some of the characteristics of signature programs. I do think there can be inertia in higher education. There are people who have done things the same way their whole lives, and they don’t have a whole lot of incentive to do things differently. When you introduce this new concept into the environment, it does shake things up. People can’t be complacent, so they respond,” Guerra says.

Contact Jonnie Guerra at and Carol Guardo at