Strategic Planning in Higher Education 101:

Is it time to go back to basics or move forward with new standards for the planning process?

Table of Contents

Strategic Planning in Higher Education 101

Strategic planning in higher education 101: planning in times of consistent change. As colleges and universities step into a sense of “new normal,” it is becoming increasingly important for higher education leaders and boards to recommit to the strategic planning process. Times are far from normal as institutions face the enrollment cliff, find ways to continue to integrate online learning, and reconsider other changes that came in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These combined issues make it a perfect time for leaders to adjust their approach to strategic planning in higher education and decide whether to extend the work on their current strategic plan—or to make an abrupt departure from the previous playbook and recreate a strategic plan from scratch. While the latter may be the right option, it is important to consider what strategic planning is and is not—and what it offers an institution. Based on this primer, leaders can make a well-informed decision about which avenue is the best to follow for their institution.

5 Strategic Planning Questions

The process of strategic planning in higher education requires institutional leaders and boards to answer five strategic questions:

  1. Where do we want the institution to be? This involves projecting the future of the institution and then determining how to align the institution’s vision, goals, purpose, and outcomes with this ideal state.
  2. What will determine when we get there? Institutional leaders and stakeholders need to create a quantifiable feedback system that measures the institution’s progress toward achieving its ideal future state.
  3. Where are we now? Determining the current status involves assessing the institution’s situation based on the institution’s strengths and weaknesses and the external opportunities and threats that are presently being faced.
  4. How do we get there? Institutional leaders and stakeholders need to identify how to close the gap between the current and the ideal situation in a holistic and ongoing way.
  5. What environmental factors will or may change in our future? This question involves analyzing the factors that will potentially impact the institution’s operating environment and potential risk/disruption factors (both good and bad) and then building a strategic plan that considers these factors. This also can form the basis for an enterprise risk management system that will mitigate these potential challenges.

Delving into these various questions allows institutional leaders and participants to gauge both the institution’s present state and the desired future. This approach also requires leaders and stakeholders to create consensus on how to move forward through identifying progress measures as well as beginning to start the organizational processes to create policies, organizational changes, budgets, and staffing to achieve the desired future. Strategic planning participants also need to analyze the range of environmental factors that could disrupt these efforts and even bring significant and potentially devastating harm to the institution.

Systemic, Detailed Analysis

The 11-step strategic planning process requires leaders and a diverse group of stakeholders to undertake a systemic and detailed analysis of the institution’s situation, both future and current, to develop a roadmap to its ideal future state. This effort involves delving deeply into the institution’s inner workings and the external environment, both the current environment and the expected future environment, to get a transparent, holistic view of the institution’s past, present, and future.

Future Environmental Scanning

The strategic planning process’s first step is to conduct a future environmental scan, which is well described in this previous blog. Done properly, this process allows institutions to engage stakeholders from across the institution who are involved in the SKEPTIC analysis of socio-demographics, competition (represented with a K), environment/economics, political/regulatory, technology, industry, and customers.

Ultimately, this exercise serves as an educational process that helps participants understand the many issues facing a higher education institution. This process helps to mitigate their resistance to the call for change created in the new plan and creates a shared vision among the stakeholders, especially those in the faculty. When done in a way that allows participants to explore issues and build a sense of community, this process can serve as a springboard that provides momentum toward achieving the strategic plan’s goals.

Brand Promise Evaluation

The second step involves evaluating the institution’s brand promise, which allows stakeholders to determine what is unique, different, and better about the institution, both from the perspective of students, industry, and the competition. Again, we covered this topic in-depth in this previous blog.

Ideal Future State

The third step asks leaders to review and, if needed, revise the institution’s vision, mission, and values. This step provides an opportunity for the institution to examine the current vision, mission, and values, and then test proposed versions against the future environmental scanning findings and brand promise that were previously identified.

One note of caution with the ideal future state. Whereas the overall vision for an institution may change, accreditors generally allow only minor changes in the institutional mission. If there are major changes to the institution’s mission, the institution’s accreditor may require it to submit a substantive change request and potentially have a site visit.

Key Performance Indicators (Metrics)

The fourth step identifies key performance metrics that will help institutional leaders gauge success and determine if there are troublesome issues or if the institution needs to take corrective action. This area should involve 5-7 (but no more than 10) key measurements.

The development of metrics involves using the institutional values, mission, vision, and external driving forces to determine goal areas. These areas are then used to set measures that will reflect the attainment of the vision.

It is important to determine who is accountable for accomplishing the goal—and ultimately, who is accountable for institutional progress toward completing all goals. After identifying the most important measures, stakeholders need to determine how they plan to measure outputs, results, and core values, then set the action plan measures for the first year of the strategic plan.

Current State Assessment

The fifth step creates analyzing the institution’s current state. This analysis is often done by determining strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, and trends (SWOTT).

We believe that the best people to begin this process are key stakeholders, so it is done early in the stakeholder input/attunement process. Frequently, frontline managers, who deal with the day-to-day details, are the best sources for this information (vs. the executive team, who are removed from the day-to-day). Once the stakeholders have done the initial SWOT analysis, then the core planning team, made up of the executives, should review this information.

Long-term Strategies, Goals, and Priorities

The sixth step entails creating long-term strategies, goals, and priorities. This critical portion of the strategic planning process provides the framework to develop the initial business plan. Once this is completed, short- and long-term budgets can be developed based on this roadmap, which charts the course to the institution’s desired future. This also requires stakeholders to make difficult decisions about institutional priorities moving forward.

Enterprise Risk Planning in Higher Education

The seventh step requires enterprise risk planning and scenario planning that includes financial modeling. Enterprise risk management involves both the administration and the board’s involvement. The administration conducts risk planning, while the board is responsible for risk oversight. This effort requires the board, administrators, and stakeholders to analyze four critical areas–hazards and accidents; societal challenges; governmental issues; and technology—to develop risk maps of potential disruptions.

From there, teams engage in scenario planning to use the risk map to develop mitigation strategies, policies, and controls. This process also allows institutional leaders to analyze potential financial impacts from these scenarios so they can identify ways to mitigate losses. From this process, leaders can do more nuanced budget modeling based on the best-case and worst-case scenarios.

Departmental Planning and Implementation Planning

The eighth step entails developing departmental plans that form the basis of the implementation plan. Since departments are responsible for implementation, it is important to create departmental plans that are aligned with the strategic plan.

In the past, many strategic plans did not go deeper than organizational strategies and tactics that are required to realize a 10-year vision and business plans covering 1- and 3 years. Additionally, these strategic plans did not require departments to be accountable. However, it is important for departments to clearly commit publicly to their part in realizing organizational goals. Ultimately, by doing this deeper effort, institutions can help ensure the successful implementation of the institutional strategic plan.

Approval and Accountability

The ninth step involves gaining approval, first from the institution’s core team. These stakeholders need to agree to the plan, including embracing the responsibility of being accountable for its implementation.  This step happens at the last planning meeting before the complete plan is shared with the Board of Trustees for their approval.

Board Approval

The tenth step involves seeking approval from the Board of Trustees. This step requires the board to gain a deep understanding of the plan through meetings that present the plan so that trustees can ask questions and give input. Once their input is incorporated into the plan, the board is asked to give final approval.

Plan Rollout

The final step, which happens after board approval, involves the “unveiling” of the full strategic plan. The roll-out process is comprised of a series of meetings facilitated by the core planning team in which the plan is explained in detail. This process builds a shared vision around the consensus-based strategic plan and reaffirms that stakeholder feedback was incorporated into the plan.

Wrapping Up Strategic Planning in Higher Education

As a “new normal” begins to emerge, higher education leaders must begin to chart their institution’s course into the future. The question becomes whether to follow the previous path that many institutions were following prior to the pandemic or to break new ground.

No matter which option is chosen, this “new normal” does offer the perfect time for strategic planning in higher education. This type of planning can help engage various stakeholders in developing a common vision for the institution’s future through deep analysis of the present situation, review of current and future environmental factors and risks, and meaningful conversation that engages voices from across the campus.

These efforts are worth the time invested because they help to chart a meaningful and well-attuned roadmap to the institution’s envisioned future – a shared vision for your institution’s future – and create a role for everyone on campus in bringing this vision into reality with minimal resistance to change.

In other words, people support what they help create.

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