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A Guide To Strategic Planning For Higher Education Boards In Today’s World

Unleashing Success: A Guide to Strategic Planning for Higher Education Boards


How robust is the strategic plan for your higher education institution? When was the last time you updated your plan?

In today’s higher education arena, there is much talk about the volatility that threatens institutions. Competition, economic instability, declining enrollment, high tuition, decreased governmental financial support, affirmative action and competition from online schools all have the potential to threaten the livelihoods and sustainability of even the longest-standing higher education institutions. A strategic plan enables colleges and universities to deliver on their mission, vision and promises to students regardless of the challenges that arise.

Strategic planning is a process that addresses all the challenges colleges and universities face and provides a solid plan for overcoming them. An analysis of 31 different studies shows that “strategic planning has a positive, moderate, and significant impact on organizational performance.” The report also recommends that strategic planning be part of standard managerial approaches in organizations.

Many colleges and universities are failing to confront these challenges in hopes that time will resolve their issues. By not addressing these issues immediately, these challenges may threaten the long-term sustainability of their institutions. Now is the time for colleges to take a thoughtful, data-informed approach to strategic planning.

Two tools stand out as the most effective for higher education strategic planning — proven models of strategic planning and software solutions for good governance such as those offered by BoardEffect.

Financial Viability vs. Educational Quality

For most higher education institutions, it’s not financially feasible to focus solely on educational quality, as they’ve been able to do during better economic times. Challenging financial times are creating new tensions between higher education boards, administrators and faculty, and the strain is having major implications on strategic planning and decision-making.

These tensions are forcing boards and administrators to find creative ways to offer quality education while staying within responsible financial parameters.

From a faculty perspective, the staff is accustomed to making decisions that hail from careful consultation, consensual decisions and the majority approval of the faculty. While this details a responsible approach to strategic planning, boards and administrators often need to make difficult decisions promptly that don’t allow for the type of careful consideration the faculty is accustomed to.

Some faculty members may resist change that directly affects them. While the board and administrators agree with the faculty’s expectations, they must be flexible in planning for the institutions’ needs on an ongoing basis.

One important way boards, administrators, and faculty can find the balance between financial viability and educational quality is to follow best practices for strategic planning.

Best Practices for Strategic Planning

A strategic plan for higher education serves to guide the institution in making short- and long-term decisions. Furthermore, a strategic plan services the following purposes:

  • To carry out the school’s mission, vision, and values
  • To comply with laws and regulations
  • To keep the institution operationally sound
  • To keep the institution fiscally healthy

Best practices for strategic planning should incorporate the following 7 basic elements of a strategic plan to provide the foundation for planning.

  1. Vision – The vision statement generally describes what the university wants to see happen over the course of the next 5-10 years, and it should be considered in every step of the strategic plan.
  2. Mission – The mission statement describes succinctly how the institution will achieve the vision. Strategic committee members may choose to include the mission and vision statements in the strategic plan.
  3. SWOT analysis – A SWOT analysis is a framework that helps higher education institutions evaluate the school’s competitive position. SWOT is an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
  4. Core values – Core values are non-negotiable statements that transcend everyone involved in the institution. Core values are important in strategic planning because they keep all other parts of the strategic plan aligned.
  5. Goals – SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) goals are specific goals that help institutions be accountable for results. SMART goals are clear and attainable and ensure the institution has the necessary support to achieve them.
  6. Objectives – The objectives section of a strategic plan describes what happens when the goals are achieved. Metrics and key performance indicators will help quantify the results.
  7. Action plans – Much as it sounds, the action plan is the “how” of the strategic plan. This section outlines the necessary resources to carry out each strategic goal including finances, people, time, and supplies.

The exact components of a strategic plan often vary according to the school’s culture and needs.

Another best practice is to engage stakeholders across the organization including IT staff and human resources personnel.

While the action plans describe how to carry out the strategic plan, it’s considered a best practice to assign someone to monitor the key performance indicators or set up a committee to monitor them. This way, the board can make adjustments along the way if something doesn’t go as planned.

Recommendations for Higher Education Strategic Planning in Today’s World

Colleges and universities generally have a foundation in history and deep-seated traditions. Nonetheless, the Society for College and University Planning points out that higher education is immensely different than it was in the last few decades.

For this reason, boards and administrators may find it challenging to keep pace with disruption, which has become the new normal in education. Today, higher education institutions must prove their worth and respond faster to students’ and societies’ needs.

How can boards deal effectively with disruption? First, follow the tried-and-true best practices for strategic planning, as outlined here.

Second, leverage technology that makes processes better and more efficient. The right tools give higher education institutions the necessary data to engage in meaningful strategic planning.

Finally, review examples of strategic plans from other colleges and universities, and mirror the best of the best. The University of Northern Colorado’s website provides a list of strategic plan examples from other universities as you conduct your research. A template for your strategic plan will help streamline the process.

A Sound Strategic Plan Helps You Deliver on Your College’s Mission and Vision

In today’s learning environment, prospective students are looking for assurance that the college they choose offers a compelling education and leads to gainful employment. A well-developed strategic plan will help your college or university assist your board and administration in delivering what it promises.

A board management solution is a good investment in technology for your board of trustees as you look forward to your annual strategic planning meeting. BoardEffect is designed with tools, analytics and insights to support boards of trustees in all their responsibilities, including strategic planning.

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