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Strengthening Academic Program Viability Through Strategic Development


The challenges faced by higher education programs across disciplines are considerable and mounting each year. In communication sciences and disorders (CSD), programs are being threatened with downsizing or even closure as a result of budget shortfalls in their respective institutions and states. In recognition of this, the ASHA Vice President for Academic Affairs established a working group in the late fall of 2008 to develop a resource for programs facing potential downsizing or closure. This group consisted of members of the Academic Affairs Coordinating Committee (Wren Newman and Rosalind Scudder); the Executive Board of the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders (Mikael Kimelman, Celia Hooper, and Larry Small); the Executive Board of the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (Mary Anne Hanner and Judith Page); and ASHA staff in Academic Affairs (Loretta Nunez) and Accreditation (Patti Tice).

Despite the original impetus for this document, it became clear that the information might be just as appropriate for programs seeking proactively to ensure their continued strength and viability. The resource contains five primary sections:

Each section makes suggestions for resources that might be consulted and/or leveraged by academic programs to their strategic benefit. Some redundancy of bulleted information appears between sections of content and is intentional for emphasis.

In addition to this document, the opening plenary session of the April 2009 Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CAPCSD) presented a panel titled "Positioning Yourself for Institutional Survival" (Danielle Ripich, Alex Johnson, Amy Wohlert, and Ilsa Schwarz). This and other presentations can be found on the CAPCSD Web site under the 2009 Proceedings.

Environmental Forces

Higher education institutions need to be responsive to the challenges posed by diminishing financial resources, increasing costs, and significant societal and technological changes. Staying informed about the various factors that influence the work and success of academic programs is an important activity for all programs, and one that will help them sustain themselves. Relevant factors and resources to consult include the following:

Current state and national workforce dynamics in regard to supply and demand of CSD personnel in both higher education and in service delivery settings

Status of state higher education finance

Needs and expectations of high school graduates

Changing trends in healthcare

Changing dynamics and challenges within the academy

External Forces

There is a rich source of potential support from individuals, groups, and agencies external to the college/university. Examples of different types of support have been noted in paper presentations by Bernstein, Ratner, and Smit (1994) and Ripich, Johnson, Wohlert, and Schwarz (2009) that can be accessed from the CAPCSD annual conference proceedings on the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CAPCSD). Many CSD programs have already established external relationships that are essential for current operations and that may be marshaled during threats of closure, or as needed, when working with college/university administrators. Following are suggestions to engage external forces in support of programs:

  • Establish and maintain close working relationships with external practicum site personnel and administrators.
  • Hold university clinic open houses to which influential community leaders are invited.
  • Establish an advisory council for the chair/department and keep members well informed about the program.
  • Establish a budget committee within the department, with possible student and community members, to review departmental resources and the value of the program to the school and the university.
  • Collaborate with philanthropic groups to enlist support and help for the program and its clinic.
  • Generate publicity in campus and community media outlets and publicize successful graduates, research achievements of both faculty and students, and clinic programs that benefit the community.
  • Similarly, make readily available the program's national certification examination pass rates, program graduation rates, and employment rates.
  • Establish an alumni society with the help of the college/university alumni association and involve this group in advocacy, including fund-raising, on behalf of the program.

Internal Forces

It is important for CSD programs to establish themselves as central to the mission of the college and university and to increase their visibility within the academic community on the campus. In addition, program chairs/directors should understand the priorities of the campus administration (e.g., strategic plan, community outreach and service learning, or multicultural student recruitment and retention) and align the department as much as possible with those priorities. Some suggestions for accomplishing both of these goals are provided in the following:

  • Develop a program planning document that demonstrates what the priorities of the program are and how those priorities will be accomplished.
  • Understand the administration's financial and budgeting processes by consulting with university budgeting officers to learn how the university's budgets are constructed, how resources are assigned, and how the program might be a better steward of resources.
  • Understand how to frame proactive budget discussions (e.g., cost-benefit ratio data and comparative enrollment and financial data).
  • Consider how additional revenue might be raised to support program needs (e.g., enrollment of additional students through an online component or establishment of contracts on a fee-for-service basis to expand training opportunities and service delivery options).
  • Understand what changes would need to be made in response to a variety of cost reduction initiatives (e.g., 10% or 20% cut in costs) in order to negotiate for and protect the program's highest priorities.
  • Maximize the program's centrality and intrinsic value to the university by building collaborations with key campus units and by enhancing visibility of the program and its contributions (e.g., developing courses integrated across CSD and related disciplines, and supporting faculty participation in campus governance and on-campus committees, participation in campus general education course offerings, and documentation of accomplishments of faculty and students in campus media outlets).
  • Be innovators and leaders in developing not only new curricular offerings but also training models (e.g., interdisciplinary clinics with psychology, counseling, special education, and education).


The Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA) accredits graduate education programs that prepare individuals to enter professional practice in audiology and/or speech-language pathology. The intention of academic accreditation is to promote excellence in educational preparation while assuring the public that graduates of accredited programs have had the opportunity to acquire a core set of knowledge and skills required for independent professional practice.

Accreditation serves the public interest by ensuring that a program has met at least threshold standards in areas such as curriculum, faculty, and student services. More importantly, it provides accountability by evaluating a program's success in meeting its mission and accomplishing its own stated student learning outcomes.

Accredited programs that are threatened with or targeted for downsizing or closure (and that have no or limited standards citations ) should promote the value of accreditation to their university administrators as an external validation of quality and a rationale for maintaining the program. Issues to highlight may include references to the following accreditation standards [PDF] as some examples of the quality of the program:

Standard 1.2 - The program's mission and goals are consistent with CAA standards for entry into professional practice (3.1A and/or 3.1B) and with the mission of the institution.

  • The mission statements of the institution, college, and program must be presented as evidence to support compliance with this standard. The program's faculty must regularly evaluate the congruence of program and institutional goals and the extent to which the goals are achieved.

Standard 1.3 - The program develops and implements a long-term strategic plan.

  • The plan must be congruent with the mission of the institution, have the support of the university administration, and reflect the role of the program within the community. Components of a plan may include long-term program goals, specific measurable objectives, strategies for attainment, a schedule for analysis, and a mechanism for regular evaluation of the plan itself and of progress in meeting the plan's objectives. The plan and the results of the regular evaluation of the plan and its implementation must be shared with faculty, students, staff, alumni, and other interested parties.

Standard 1.4 - The program's faculty has authority and responsibility for the program.

  • The institution must indicate by its administrative structure that the program's faculty is recognized as a body that can initiate, implement, and evaluate decisions affecting all aspects of the professional education program, including the curriculum. The program's faculty has reasonable access to higher levels of administration. The program must describe how substantive decisions regarding the academic and clinical programs are initiated, developed, and implemented by the program faculty. Programs without independent departmental status must be particularly clear in describing these aspects of the organizational structure.

Standard 5.3 - The program conducts regular and ongoing assessments of program effectiveness and uses the results for continuous improvement.

  • The program must document the procedures followed in evaluating the quality, currency, and effectiveness of its graduate program and the process by which it engages in systematic self-study. The documentation must indicate the mechanisms used to evaluate each program component, the schedule on which the evaluations are conducted and analyzed, and the program changes and/or improvements that have resulted from assessments. The program collects and evaluates data on its effectiveness from multiple sources (e.g., students, alumni, faculty, employers, off-site supervisors or preceptors, community members, persons served). The data must include students' and graduates' evaluations of courses and clinical education.
  • Results of the assessments must be used to plan and implement program improvements that are consistent with the program's mission and goals.

Steps to Take if Program Closure is Threatened or Imminent

Programs need to respond vigorously to any implied or overt discussion of involuntary program closure or downsizing. The following are suggestions for actions to take in such a situation:

  • Generate constant publicity and accept offers of help from alumni, families of clinic patients, and contracted partners.
  • Enlist student support.
  • Send mailings to alumni and former faculty.
  • Have well-prepared department representatives at public forums.
  • Write letters to everyone!
  • Consider settings in which to hold meetings for public comment.
  • Be prepared to dispute administration "facts" and "figures" when appropriate. Share information from the department budget committee or chair that outlines the department's financial value to the educational mission of the university.
  • Collect letters of support from school districts, rehabilitation companies, and hospitals that employ program graduates, and document the positive difference that graduates are making in the community.
  • Collect letters from families/patients who have worked with a program graduate and support the continued need for preparation of students, and share these with the administration.
  • Contact colleagues in other institutions and organizations, such as:
    • CAPCSD
    • ASHA Academic Affairs at for data, information and letter of support from the Association
    • Other discipline specific sources, including the CAA (e.g., by providing updates in annual reports to the CAA or in the reaccreditation application of expected changes).

A recent example of how a CSD program strategically and successfully prevented its closure is illustrated on the following Web sites, which were established as a way to communicate about, and rally support for, the Audiology and Speech Pathology program at the University of Tennessee:

Other helpful resources can be found in selected articles in such publications as:

In the event that a decision is reached to close the program, complete the following steps as part of the transition plan.

  • Contact ASHA Academic Affairs via e-mail at
  • Inform the CAA in writing of an impending program closure with specific circumstances and details.
  • Collaborate with the university administration to develop a "Teach-Out" plan in accordance with the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. A Teach-Out plan is a written plan developed by an institution that provides for the equitable treatment of students if an institution, or an institutional location that provides 100% of at least one program, ceases to operate before all students have completed their program of study. It may include, if required by the institution's accrediting agency, a Teach-Out agreement between institutions.
  • Submit a plan and time line to the CAA for ensuring completion of the program by all current students that will ensure sufficient faculty and other resources to provide the curriculum, practicum experiences, support services, and advising needed to fulfill the program's mission and meet its obligations to its students.
  • Provide evidence that all students have been informed of the program closure with a plan for assisting them in completing their program of study.

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