What is Strategic Planning in Higher Education?

Strategic planning in higher education is a collaborative process that involves formulating a shared vision for its ideal future and outlining the steps required to achieve it. This approach emphasizes the importance of contributions from educators and administrators, who are vital in determining the institution’s future direction. Their insights and understanding of the institution’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are instrumental in developing a strategic plan that is realistic, achievable, and impactful.

This process involves a series of steps that help the institution to understand and develop ten core components:

  1. The projected setting in which the institution will function. (Strategic Planning and Environmental Scanning in Higher Education)
  2. Metrics for measuring the achievement of the ideal future state
  3. An assessment of the institution’s current state
  4. Strategies, tactics, and actions required to reach the ideal future vision
  5. Annual and multi-year budgets to support the implementation of the strategic plan
  6. Risk planning, including mitigation strategies to ensure the plan’s viability and implementability. (Risk Management)
  7. The desired ideal future vision, including its vision, mission, values, goals, and objectives
  8. Departmental plans that align with and support the overall strategic plan
  9. An implementation plan designed to actualize the ideal future vision
  10. The institution’s current brand positioning  (Brand Positioning)

Most higher education institutions, whether universities or colleges, engage in strategic planning, with plans spanning short-term (2-3 years) or long-term (5-10 years) horizons. When actively implemented, these plans have the potential to lead to transformative changes and significant improvements. However, they often end up as mere ‘academic exercises, ‘colloquially suffering from the Top-Shelf Trap (strategic plan neglected and forgotten), where they gather dust due to a lack of active implementation. This issue often arises from a top-down planning approach that fails to recognize a strategic plan’s multiple purposes and potential benefits.

A comprehensive strategic planning approach is more than just ticking off boxes. It is about focusing on the desired outcomes from the outset and prioritizing measuring these outcomes over mere process adherence. This approach instills confidence and trust in the process, ensuring that the strategic plan is not just a document but a roadmap to success. It also emphasizes the crucial role of active implementation, empowering the audience to take ownership of the process and its outcomes.

Advantages of Effective Strategic Planning in Higher Education

Effective strategic planning enables a higher education institution to:

Develop a unified vision that aligns with its mission, benefiting faculty, staff, and students.

Establish a clear plan that includes specific goals, objectives, actions, and responsibilities, guiding the institution and its community.

Cultivate a culture focused on results and ongoing improvement throughout the

Sustain the institution’s financial health and ensure adherence to its foundational mission.

Promote a risk management culture that safeguards the institution’s operations.

Ensure accountability for outcomes at all levels, starting with the president and extending to all staff.

Implement frameworks that allow the administration to closely track the institution’s
progress and avoid unexpected challenges.

Uphold high standards for academic excellence and performance, ensuring the institution remains in favorable standing with accrediting bodies.

Indicators That Your Strategic Planning Needs Refinement

Several indicators suggest that an institution’s strategic planning might be failing. Often, these issues have been ingrained within the institution for years, dismissed as “that’s just how we do things here” or “it’s part of our culture.” However, these are significant red flags indicating that your planning practices could jeopardize the well-being of your institution and its leadership, including board members and administrators.

Lack of Shared Vision: There's confusion over priorities and values, with no unified direction for the future.
Lack of Accountability: There needs to be clear metrics to track progress or enforce the execution of plans.
Lack of Strategic Focus: The plan includes an excessive number of goals and objectives, causing internal competition for limited resources.
Lack of Funds: Budgeting processes must align with strategic priorities or account for potential disruptions.
Lack of Execution: Departmental plans are not integrated into the overall strategy or lack proper metrics for accountability.
Lack of Board Support: The board needs to be more engaged in developing and approving the strategic plan, rather than leaving it solely to the administration.
Lack of Leadership: Leaders need to be held accountable for implementation or removing obstacles to success.
Lack of Leadership: Leaders need to be held accountable for implementation or removing obstacles to success.
Lack of Communication: Communication is one-sided, leading to unresolved issues that need to be addressed by senior leadership.

Effective Approaches to Strategic Planning and Management in Higher Education

Numerous best practices in strategic planning and management are essential for higher education institutions aiming to succeed and meet their fiduciary responsibilities. These practices include:

Begin with the Desired Outcome: Visualize your institution's ideal future and develop strategies to achieve that vision.
Align Departmental Plans: Ensure that individual department plans contribute to and align with the overarching institutional strategy.

Form a Core Planning Team: Establish a team with broad representation from the board, administration, and faculty to guide the planning process.

Implement Comprehensive Risk Planning: Include risk assessment and mitigation strategies to address potential disruptions.
Establish Clear Metrics: Define metrics that indicate goal achievement and hold individuals accountable for their performance.
Conduct Annual Reviews: Regularly review and adjust the plan, assumptions, metrics, and strategies to promote continual improvement and success.
Anticipate Future Trends: Plan for the future context of operations, aiming to position the institution advantageously for upcoming changes.
Engage a Diverse Stakeholder Group: Set up a diverse group of stakeholders who provide feedback to the core planning team and will help implement the strategy.
Develop Multi-Year Financial Plans: Craft budgets that prioritize strategic goals and facilitate their achievement.
Utilize Current Data: Use metrics such as student graduation rates, retention, and persistence to assess the institution's current state accurately.
Celebrate and Roll Out the Plan Campus-Wide: Introduce the strategic plan across the entire campus, celebrating its launch and subsequent achievements.
Create a Detailed Implementation Plan: Develop a specific plan that includes structures for effectively executing the strategic plan.

How Accreditation Expert Consulting Has Assisted Our Clients in Strategic Planning

At Accreditation Expert Consulting, our unique processes and methodologies have significantly enhanced the strategic planning and execution capabilities of numerous universities and colleges.

Here are some key contributions we have made to our clients’ boards:

Organized several planning sessions with crucial stakeholder groups to cultivate a unified vision and shared values within the institution.

Revised conflict of interest forms for boards and administrations to prevent potential conflicts that could jeopardize accreditation.

Created an annual board calendar to schedule essential planning and governance activities systematically.

Formed board committees are responsible for monitoring the development and success of institutional plans, including setting up mechanisms to ensure effective implementation.

Set up standing committees to regularly review and update plan assumptions and environmental forecasts, ensuring the plans remain relevant and actionable.

Established implementation frameworks that helped institutions maintain the viability of their strategic plans over time.

Conducted the institution's yearly strategic planning retreat to align and refresh organizational goals and strategies.

Developed multiple strategic plans for institutions, institution-specific plans that integrate with and support the overarching institutional strategy.

See some of our Accreditation Expert Consulting client case studies


Strategic Planning: A Crucial Tool for Advancing Higher Education

What sets strategic planning apart from strategic management?

Strategic planning and strategic management are two sides of the same coin, each serving a unique but essential role. Strategic planning is the process of envisioning the institution's ideal future and charting the path to get there. It's a 10-step journey that answers five crucial questions about the institution's future, current status, and the strategies to achieve set goals. This process provides a roadmap and cultivates a sense of direction and purpose among the stakeholders.

Strategic Management: The Key to Success in Higher Education. It's a continuous cycle of planning and implementing strategies, deeply embedding these processes into the organization's culture. However, it's important to note that only a small percentage of higher education institutions achieve this level of strategic integration.

What is the ideal duration for a strategic plan?

The length of a strategic plan typically ranges between 5 and 10 years, depending on the institution's objectives and external factors. A 10-year plan allows for ambitious long-term goals, while a 5-year plan may be more suited to environments experiencing rapid change, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions engaged in strategic management can adapt their plans annually, allowing them to remain flexible and responsive. This adaptability ensures that the strategic plan can weather any storm and continue to guide the institution toward its goals.

Why is an implementation plan crucial for a strategic plan?

An implementation plan is vital as it allocates the necessary resources to reach strategic goals and ensures that daily operations are consistent with long-term objectives. It also enhances accountability by setting measurable targets that can be evaluated during performance reviews.

What are the essential committees for successful plan implementation?

Successful strategic plan implementation relies on several key committees:

  • The executive leadership team focuses on the top yearly priorities.
  • The Accreditation Expert Consulting steering committee, meeting regularly, oversees the refinement and execution of the plan.
  • The program management office coordinates strategic projects, particularly in IT, to ensure they align with overall goals.
  • An internal support cadre handles day-to-day implementation activities, focusing on strategic changes.
What are the ten steps in the strategic planning process?

The strategic planning process in higher education encompasses ten critical steps:

  1. Developing strategies and actions for achieving the desired vision.
  2. Establishing metrics to measure success.
  3. Conducting a current state assessment.
  4. Creating departmental plans that support the overall strategy.
  5. Planning budgets for both short-term and long-term goals.
  6. Developing a detailed implementation plan.
  7. Assessing the future environment for operation.
  8. Conducting risk planning to mitigate potential disruptions.
  9. Evaluating current brand positioning.
  10. Defining the ideal future vision (vision, mission, values, goals, and objectives).
How do I know if my strategic plan needs revising or discarding?

Signs that a strategic plan may need revision or replacement include a lack of shared vision, premature goal achievement, outdated assumptions, insufficient risk planning, new leadership desiring changes, unmet objectives, and significant changes in the external environment.

How frequently should a strategic plan be reviewed?

Institutions should review their strategic plan annually to monitor progress, reassess assumptions and risks, and make necessary updates. This practice is part of strategic management and ensures the plan remains relevant and effective.

What is the board's role in strategic planning and management?

The board's role in strategic planning is pivotal. Some boards are deeply involved in the planning process, while others focus on approving the strategic plan and associated budgets. From a strategic management perspective, boards typically assess plan achievements during their annual retreat, with some delegating ongoing reviews to specific committees. The board's primary responsibility is to oversee the administration and ensure accountability for the plan's execution, making it a crucial part of the strategic planning process.

Contact us for a free consultation

We have collaborated with educational institutions nationwide that hold accreditation from prominent national and regional agencies, including: