Strategic Planning in Higher Education: 10 Things to Know

Posted by Joe Bauman, M.S. on Aug 15, 2019 11:54:20 AM

Strategic planning can shape the future of a higher education institution, from effectively managing budgeted funds to driving continuous improvement efforts. Below, we outline ten ways your institution can get the most out of its strategic planning efforts.

1. Regional accreditors look for evidence that institutions have implemented their plans.

Regional accreditation is a peer-review process designed to uphold shared quality standards in higher education. The accreditation standards have been developed and voted upon by the institutions in that region. Although the standards are phrased differently across the seven U.S. accreditation regions, every accreditation region expects institutions to develop, document, and implement an overall collaboratively-designed institutional plan (the academic master plan, facilities master plan, etc., are discretionary). Having a strategic plan that just “sits on the shelf” is a good way for an institution to get in trouble with its accreditors!

2. Strategic planning in higher education is a collaborative effort.

Even if there is a person at the institution with “Planning” in their title (for example, VP of Effectiveness and Planning, etc.), this person does not develop the strategic plan, much less implement the plan, on her own. The person with the “Planning” title should manage the strategic planning process, invite people to participate on strategic planning committees and sub-committees, and facilitate the committee meetings. The strategic plan itself will be the product of many hours of discussion and collaboration among people from across the institution – faculty, staff, and administration – not just the executives.

3. Strategic plans are usually multifaceted.

Just as in private industry, an institution’s strategic plan reflects its mission statement. Institutions of higher education often have broad and multifaceted mission statements: educating students, serving the community, providing cultural enrichment, fostering world-class research, etc. It’s not uncommon for the facets of the strategic plan to directly reflect the different elements of the institution’s mission statement. Each element of the mission statement can have one or more corresponding facets in the strategic plan.

4. Strategic plans are often organized into a general-to-specific hierarchy.

The highest level of the strategic plan may have only a handful of components, often reflecting the elements of the institution’s mission statement. Each additional level will be more specific, usually with multiple sub-points providing more detail about one of the elements in the level above. In some cases, it may take two or more levels before the plan gets specific in terms of measurable goals. Building on the example above, the first level may be “Provide an excellent education to students,” the second level may include “Prepare students for successful careers,” and “Prepare students to pursue graduate studies,” and the third level may be “Ninety percent of graduates will state they are satisfied or very satisfied in their responses to the graduate survey” “Eighty-five percent of graduates will find employment in their fields within six months of graduation,” and “Twenty percent of graduates will apply to graduate school within three years of graduation.”

5. Institutions may have multiple high-level plans.

In addition to the overall institutional strategic plan, many institutions now have multiple plans to reflect the major functions of the institution. For example, institutions may have an academic master plan, a financial master plan, and a technology master plan. Depending on the institution’s planning process, the overall strategic plan may be the driver of these high-level “functional” plans, or the overall strategic plan may be an aggregator of these functional plans. When the overall strategic plan is developed first, it will usually be the driver; when the functional plans are developed first, the overall plan is more likely to be an aggregate of the functional plans.

6. The institution’s strategic plan is expected to influence budget allocations.

One very good way to document that an institution is implementing its strategic plan is to show how the strategic plan drives resource allocation decisions. Is the institution funding new initiatives designed to help it achieve its strategic goals? Does the budget committee choose to allocate funds to initiatives that are more likely to have an impact? Many institutions are facing tight budgets - in some cases, it would be fair to call the situation a budget crisis - and in cases like this it is all the more critical to be able to demonstrate that financial resources are being used in a thoughtful and proactive way.

7. Departments or programs usually have their own plans as well.

In most institutions, academic programs as well as administrative and support departments go through a “program review” process. In the process, units review the past several years, reflect on the changing demands on their operations, and outline the resources that they will need to be effective for the next several years. The departments/programs identify the resources needed to meet their goals as well as to contribute to the institution’s strategic goals. The program review process should affect the unit’s budget - some institutions are very explicit about the expectation that all new budget requests must be supported by the program review - so departments/programs should align budget requests with both unit goals and the institutional priorities.

8. You can think of planning as being part of the same continuous improvement cycle as your assessment processes.

Sometimes, people in higher education express frustration with what seems like a never-ending series of requests for plans, strategies, and assessment results. It’s more accurate (and a lot less frustrating) to see that all of these requests come from the same underlying need: to engage colleagues across the institution in a meaningful continuous improvement process. We assess our students’ learning and other important goals, collaborate with colleagues and develop plans for how we can achieve even better results in the future, and develop a budget for the resources needed to put these plans into action. The program review process is one means by which a department or program can step back and take a longer-term look at what they have achieved. The strategic planning process fills a similar role for the institution as a whole.

9. Planning can be hard!

If you lead planning efforts at your institution, you have probably encountered at least some level of resistance to the planning process. Some people believe that planning is fruitless because we can’t predict the future. Others want to pursue their own projects, with only the barest connection to the goals of their department or their institution. Some resist the need to document efforts, seeing documentation as bureaucratic busywork. For colleagues who resist the process, being consistent year after year and linking resource allocation to the plans will build acceptance over time.

10. SPOL is here to help.

SPOL’s Planning platform allows institutions to document and track action plans and initiatives, assign responsibilities for implementation, complete status reports, and show how plans align with institutional and other priorities. The Planning platform interfaces with SPOL’s Assessment platform to link initiatives to the outcomes they support and also to SPOL’s Budget platform to detail the resources plans need to be successful. The Planning platform also integrates with the Accreditation platform, linking action plans and associated budgetary allocations to any accreditation standards for regional and programmatic accreditors.

SPOL’s team of consultants have worked in higher education for years and can offer insights and tips on how to make the process run smoothly.


Topics: Continuous Improvement, Accreditation, Institutional Effectiveness, Strategic Planning