Sustaining Higher Ed is a monthly blog dedicated to helping college administrators and board trustees lead their organizations toward greater financial stability so they can stay on mission during challenging times.

Higher education is among the sectors most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As in other sectors, the pandemic has acted as an accelerant of changes that were already underway. For higher education, this has meant a rapid push into online education, an early arrival of enrollment challenges that were already anticipated for the near future, intensified stress on cost structures that were already under pressure, and a new consideration of potential partnerships to help ensure that an institution’s legacy continues forward.

For all these reasons, strategic planning has never been more important for colleges and universities. In this month’s post, I will be looking at the fundamentals of strategic planning in higher education. Next month, my colleague Larenda Mielke and I will discuss how these fundamentals can drive a customer-centric strategic planning process.

Translating institutional vision into action

Many institutions may already have a strategic plan in place. Too often, however, these plans lack the detail necessary to make sure that vision is translated into executable and measurable actions across all functional areas of the institution. Lacking this guidance, institutions may find that they are chasing initiatives rather than making the concerted effort necessary for broader institutional transformation. The disruption of COVID-19 also may have called the viability of an existing strategic plan into question.

Given the breadth and severity of the challenges facing many colleges and universities, it is critical to develop a strategic plan that serves as a bridge between institutional mission and vision and on-the-ground realities, providing the framework necessary to bring about real change. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been unsettling for many colleges and universities, it has also sparked a momentum for change and affirmed institutional strengths that can support the strategic planning process. These include the following:

  • Shared governance. Although sometimes seen as a vulnerability, shared governance can be a strength if it is structured in the right way. Within every college and university, there is a broad range of faculty stakeholders who are passionate about the institution and its mission, and who represent a broad range of perspectives. The groundwork for a successful strategic plan is laid by incorporating these diverse stakeholder perspectives into the plan’s development. Although no strategic plan will satisfy 100% of faculty, the understanding that the community was engaged and that this dialogue has helped to shape the strategic plan’s foundation will support change management efforts down the line.
  • Ability to adapt quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved that colleges and universities have the capacity to do things in new and different ways, and to do them quickly. The strategic planning process can leverage what may be a newfound capability on some campuses to develop a more agile institutional culture.
  • Focus on the student. The pandemic also has prompted many institutions to rethink the central role of the student in their mission. How can new modalities best be employed to enhance student learning? How can students be better supported in their education? How can institutions better communicate with students and their families? These questions also help give focus to strategic planning efforts.

All three of these strengths are currently aligned. Institutions and their stakeholders are particularly receptive at this moment to dialogue and planning for the future.

Fundamentals of an effective strategic planning process

In subsequent posts, I will be looking at differences in strategic planning processes at the institutional versus department or school level. In all cases, however, there are three fundamental elements of the process.

Pie Chart

Stakeholder engagement. In my discussion above of the advantages of a shared governance structure, I noted the importance of engaging stakeholders early in the strategic planning process to drive a from-the-ground-up development of the strategic plan. The shared governance structure supports the input of faculty, but other stakeholders should be engaged as well. These include students, alumni, administrators, and members of the board of trustees. A combination of surveys, focus groups, interviews, and planning retreats helps to ensure input by a broad range of constituents and build support and buy-in to the process.

Stakeholder engagement also must be strategic. As noted earlier, no strategic plan will ever satisfy 100% of an institution’s stakeholders. The need to engage a broad range of stakeholders must be balanced against the need to move forward.

Data review. Data can be an incredibly effective tool in countering “urban legends” or longstanding biases that can impede institutional transformation. It also can help define a baseline understanding for the institution’s current state, providing information on enrollment patterns, program performance, and other key metrics.

Benchmarking and competitive landscape analysis. This analysis provides a better understanding of where an institution stands against its peer and competitors, as well as aspirational institutions. It highlights initial opportunities for the institution, leading practices, and direction as to future state priorities.

One final consideration is availability of resources, especially the “people” component. A successful strategic planning process requires a considerable amount of effort and time. Many institutions have been pressed by the demands of responding to the pandemic. The time is right for strategic planning, but before the process begins, institutions should ensure that the necessary resources are available to give the process the support and attention it requires to be a success.