So much has changed in the higher ed environment. Why hasn’t the way we plan for it?
Change. Significant, sweeping change. We’ve been talking about it in higher ed for years: demographic, socioeconomic, technological, behavioral. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, why hasn’t the way higher ed plans?
The same old solutions. That include long, drawn-out processes. That lack focus on today’s needs or the right things. That create too much complexity. Require too much buy-in. In a world that is speeding up, these are the gears that just keep slowly turning—leaving higher ed vulnerable and unprepared for inevitable future shocks.
Applying a traditional planning approach today is similar to using your grandparents’ old print encyclopedia collection to research artificial intelligence: it’s out of date before you even begin. A modern strategic planning approach stays current, looks forward. It integrates cutting-edge tools to frame forecasts and scenario plans toward sustainability and prosperity.
There are three things that you need planning to accomplish: 1) you want your institution to stand out, 2) you want a plan you can actually follow to achieve that, and 3) you can’t wait for it to take forever.
This is modern strategic planning.
1. Differentiation by Design
Over the past 40 years, college and university market positions shifted.
In 1980, enter ESPN’s investment in college football (lifting flagships); then the internet, social media, and consumer behavior changed dramatically. As a result, institutional brand perceptions changed dramatically, which shifted institutional brand value in the eyes of the students, families, alumni, and other stakeholders. Reputation and resource imbalance became acute. Today, there are four tiers of institutions:
- Top 20 institutions, which have remained untouched.
- Flagships have become brand powerhouses (affordable degree, massive resources, huge alumni engagement).
- Private institutions are considered quality but at a perceived high cost–when affordability concerns are rampant.
- Regional institutions remain local and affordable.
Today, small and mid-sized privates face value, reputation, and resource challenges like never before. Many institutions continue to try to protect their existing market share instead of looking outward to new markets, creating new demand for the distinctive nature of their offerings or services. This is a tired higher ed game, one that doesn’t lead to a culture of innovation, enterprise thinking, or cultural transformation.
Successful companies and institutions of higher education recognize their competitive position is centered on their distinctiveness, which is more about what they represent than what they do. In fact, they see their distinction as key to their livelihood. Institutional clarity leads to differentiation by design. It frees the university’s planning and lessens the weight of the traditional process, which is historically lengthy, awkward, and fraught with competing interests. Clear institutional differentiation allows for planning agility, innovation-thinking, and systems transformation because the direction is clear, the resources are prioritized, and the wins can be easily measured.
2. Leveraging both business and higher education practices and tools
With many institutions’ enrollment and graduation rates declining, spending skyrocketing, and revenues plummeting, traditional higher ed planning structures are not working. It’s time for higher ed to seek inspiration from business and industry and borrow the best blend of cutting-edge techniques to support game-changing strategic planning. Taking a page from business and industry, successful organizations use innovative practices like:
- up-to-date forecast modeling to clearly predict their runway to overall health
- scenario planning and process mapping that allow them to adjust and fine-tune their direction given unavoidable challenges they will encounter as they implement actionable strategies.
It’s time for higher ed to grab the industry playbook on planning and make it their own.
3. A faster time to execution.
Long timelines are synonymous with the higher education strategic planning process, which hinders effectiveness. Five-year planning cycles are still in vogue because many institutions are often stuck between and more comfortable with the annual process of aligning goals, expenses, and budgets. Visioning sessions and brainstorming ad nauseum become substitutes for the clear thinking around future planning that needs to happen for institutions to stabilize and ultimately flourish.
Today, higher ed needs actionable plans developed on a much faster timeline that can offset the inevitable market shifts they are faced with. In the corporate sector, days of five-year planning cycles are long gone. While futuristic thinking and visioning may look out five, 10, or more years, successful businesses develop more immediate actions based on strategic priorities, such as how much funding is needed for business development, research, the unknown? Adjustments can be made along the way, providing for a more continuous process than the traditional linear framework higher ed has long been comfortable with.
Encyclopedia-set planning no longer serves higher ed. I am confident our modern, fresh approach to strategic planning and institutional effectiveness, focused on differentiation, cutting-edge techniques, and with a faster time to impact will aid innovative boards, presidents, and their communities in solidifying their rightful places in the competitive market.
“We have work to do to increase college enrollment; it starts with much stronger strategic plans, plans that lead to institutions that offer unique experiences and skills that draw interest from those choosing not to attend college today.” —James Rogers, CEO at 3 Enrollment Marketing, Inc.
Mary Grondahl is the Vice President for Strategic Planning & Institutional Effectiveness at 3 Enrollment Marketing.