In today’s higher education arena, there is much talk about the volatility that threatens their institutions. Competition, economic instability, declining enrollment, high tuition, decreased governmental financial support and competition from online schools all have the potential to threaten the livelihoods and sustainability of even the longest-standing higher education institutions. As an example, an Inside Higher Education survey of college and university admissions directors reported that only 41% of private colleges and 29% of public colleges were meeting the goals listed in their strategic plans for enrollments.
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 by other higher education institutions and software solutions for good corporate 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 during better economic times. Challenging financial times are creating new tensions between higher education boards, administrators and faculty, which are 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, they’re accustomed to decisions that hail from careful consultation, consensual decisions and the majority of faculty approval. While this details a responsible approach to strategic planning, boards and administrators often need to make difficult decisions in a timely manner that don’t allow for the type of careful consideration with which faculty is acquainted. Some faculty tends to resist change that directly affects them. While the board and administrators agree with the faculty’s expectations, they’re keenly aware of what’s at stake in being flexible in planning for the institutions’ needs on an ongoing basis.
One important way that boards, administrators and faculty can find the balance between financial viability and educational quality is to learn from successful models that are emerging from other higher education institutions.
Innovative and Successful Models of Higher Education Institutions
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to strategic planning in higher education. What colleges and universities can do is to take a look at the common characteristics in the strategic planning processes of their peers and extrapolate the strategies that will be most effective for their own use.
As noted in an Inside Higher Ed article, some of the commonalities of successful strategic planning models for higher education include having an inspirational presidential vision with input from the faculty and a stamp of approval by the board. The examples they provide support using data to inform planning and striving to balance aspiration with reality.
The article highlights a few higher education institutions that saw improvement by being willing to step out of the box with new approaches.
For example, Agnes Scott College, a private liberal arts college in Decatur, GA, redesigned their curriculum after doing extensive market research on what would attract students to their school. The results generated a new program called “New Summit” that was designed to attract “women who want to become leaders in an increasingly global society.” Advisors and a career mentor guide students through a course that includes a leadership lab, foreign language, digital portfolio, eight-day cultural immersion abroad, and a second, more intensive global experience.
The article also points out how the Kettering University, which is the former General Motors Institute, also used extensive market research and enlisted the help of 600 corporate partners and over 1,000 alumni who are current or former CEOs to create a new global curriculum. The initiative offers a hybrid program consisting of online classes and on-campus classes. The curriculum integrates the humanities, social sciences and the creative arts into other programs with the creation of a new College of Sciences and Liberal Arts program that better suits the degree needs of students.
Other higher education institutions have found innovative approaches in their strategic planning to find the balance between financial viability and educational quality. For example, some colleges and universities are experimenting with giving their freshmen population iPads to preserve educational quality while saving on the cost of textbooks. Personalized campus visits help some schools stand out from the crowd of campuses that offer large group visits and orientations.
According to a USA Today article, the recession and technology are driving older students back to college in record numbers. Colleges and universities may opt to take this trend into consideration when strategic planning to attract greater numbers of older students.
The high cost of tuition is prompting some higher education institutions to offer three-year accelerated degrees for some majors as a way of attracting more students.
Recommendations for Higher Education Strategic Planning in Today’s World
One thing that there’s no disagreement on is that there’s no room for assumptions in strategic planning for higher education. All planning must stem from data. Unfortunately, the data may indicate the need for major or unwelcome changes. Many colleges are steeped in history and tradition. New data may indicate a need for higher education institutions to modify their history, culture, values or mission, which may cause additional tensions in loyal faculty and alumni.
Under such circumstances, higher education boards must meet this challenge in ways that continue to connect data with strategic plans, despite needing to alter longstanding traditions. Major change will likely be more accepted when it’s based on evidence.
Many colleges have similar offerings, which make it difficult for higher education institutions to stand out among the masses of high school graduates seeking a college degree. Among other things, prospective students are looking for assurance that the college they choose offers a compelling education that leads to gainful employment, and that it will deliver what it promises. Now is the time to embrace change, as long as higher education boards base it on informative data.