A Good Strategic Plan Can Shape a College’s Future but Most Get It Wrong

It’s no secret that American colleges and universities are under stress from a variety of challenges.

The demographic crisis confronting institutions, most acutely those that are tuition-dependent, is laid out clearly in Nathan Grawe’s new book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education.

The regulatory climate is souring at the state and federal level. Social and print media focus on the extremes where the stories that sell best reside. The optics are especially miserable in a world where Hollywood and the rich collide with college administrators and athletics programs in salacious admissions scandals.

In addition, the American consumer has begun to walk away from the current college tuition pricing structure. And the heart of the crisis — not yet fully appreciated by consumers — is that the revenue from tuition no longer pays the bills at many colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, most colleges and universities try to tackle these challenges individually rather than strategically, a practice that rarely results in long-term solutions.

Search for Quick Fix Revenue Solutions is Short-sighted

Enter the sponsors of incremental solutions on college campuses. They propose modest, process-driven approaches that build upon the existing revenue model. They usually start with a study by outside evaluators to expand programs or categories of programs, often through a sense of their local market or secondary literature on hot new majors.

At some schools, the solution is to move into graduate or continuing education or expand online programming. These actions translate as an answer to a question seldom directly addressed on campus: How do we find a cash cow to increase revenue quickly?

This approach gets to the heart of the problem. It is insufficient to argue that revenue should expand to keep the campus whole.

As colleges move forward with incremental program solutions, they often fail to understand how to make their solutions work.

  • Can a college effectively price new programming without sacrificing academic quality?
  • Can they afford to use and maintain their physical footprint?
  • Does a college have reserves sufficient to cover the increased costs of the non-academic staff — marketing, communications, facilities and assessment — required to make new program initiatives contribute directly to the college’s bottom line?
The greatest danger is that the years of ill-researched incremental changes will exacerbate the crisis as a college careens toward its reckoning by failing to act strategically.

Of course, there are some presidents who will disagree, arguing that every day is a strategic march to a more sustainable future. Many others despise and fear the orchestration of a strategic plan because it devolves into historically unresolved campus disputes about how to ration college resources. A minority, in our experience, see strategic planning more positively as an opportunity to shape the direction of an institution.

Confusion Reigns Over What a Strategic Plan Is and How to Use it

For this group, the problem is that most do not understand what a strategic plan is or how to use it to encourage evolution and momentum simultaneously. They begin by immediately confusing tactics and strategy.

Or they seek a strategic plan that covers everything, trying to be comprehensive while failing to grasp what strategy best fits the college that they serve. Still others work to wrap their strategy in contemporary concerns without fully grasping how the parts relate to the whole.

A Strategic Plan is Not a List of Tasks with Timelines

We offer some advice on how best to proceed. Any good strategic plan begins with a campus community’s sense of self. What is the institution’s mission and history?

A strategic plan must build from an institution’s past to reinvigorate and refine its mission as it moves further into the 21st century.

To do so, its authors must choose the strategic emphases that they need to move the campus forward. There should be no more than half a dozen of them. Of course, the act of choosing priorities is also the act of stating what are not priorities.

A strategic plan is a listening tool, after all, identifying common strands of thinking among key stakeholders. It is not a rationed pie like an annual budget, and its authors should not permit the plan to become a series of disconnected tasks or tactics with timelines attached to them.

A good strategic plan improves college governance. Trustees should keep their noses in and hands out of the tent until they debate adoption of the plan. The faculty must play an active role in the planning process because they govern and protect the integrity of the academic program. The administration manages the path informed by reinvigorated strategy. Buy-in from key stakeholder groups, including staff and students, is critical.

A Good Strategic Plan Lives in the Daily Work of Every Employee

There must be a transparent understanding between what a strategic plan proposes going forward and how the institution will pay for the change. Don’t create a strategic plan bureaucracy to staff implementation and assessment. It must live each day in the work of every employee.

Finally, colleges should prepare for how strategy gets done. There is a real danger that a strategic plan will quickly gather dust on a shelf.

To avoid a plan that is nothing more than words on a page, two things must occur: First, a good college-wide strategic plan should drive down a response though the various academic and administrative divisions on how they will respond to implement and pay for the plan.

Second, there should be a strong assessment component, with regular updates on progress made, that feeds directly into a college’s reaccreditation.

Good Strategic Planning Enables a Community to Imagine the Possible

Good strategy demonstrates focus, competence, and determination. It is not a political balancing act among college constituencies.

A successful strategic plan establishes the legitimacy of the path forward and creates the momentum that can cut through campus cultural inertia to inspire creativity simply by allowing a campus community to imagine the possible.
No sales. No spam. Ideas, insights & commentary for today’s higher education professionals.