Long Range Institutional Planning in a Time of Change: Seven Points of ConsiderationPatrick Guilfoile | Provost, University of Wisconsin-Stout (Retired)
The pace of change in higher education shows no sign of slowing. Whether it is reductions in state funding, an increasing focus on distance delivery of courses, smaller populations of college-age students, more exacting demands from accreditors, or increased competition for students from both traditional and non-traditional educational players, colleges and universities are faced with unprecedented challenges at a time when the financial picture for many institutions is difficult or, in some cases, bordering on dire.
In the midst of this uncertainty, there are increasing demands for planning at all levels of the university. Regional accrediting bodies expect a well developed long-term planning process to be in place. For example, the Higher Learning Commission requires, as part of its criteria for accreditation, that “The institution engages in systematic and integrated planning.” The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools requires that “The institution engages in ongoing, integrated, and institution-wide research-based planning.” The WASC Senior College and University Commission states that institutions must insure that “Resource planning is integrated with all other institutional planning.” In addition, state governments and the governing bodies of colleges and universities often have additional, specific requirements for institutional planning.
It is clear that those of us who work in higher education must plan for the future, even at a time when the pace of change is so rapid it is hard to imagine what the future will hold in the months ahead, let alone the years involved in a typical plan. So how do we make decisions about programs, buildings, budgets, and other elements of a strategic plan in a rapidly shifting environment?
Here are several key points that I think are worth considering as we attempt to plan in these uncertain times.
1. Focus on the institutional mission
If the mission has been carefully crafted, it should serve as a guidepost for planning. The challenge then becomes not about determining the goals, but rather how to achieve those goals. The institutional vision and values can help provide additional guidance about what the institution intends to achieve through the planning process.
2. Consider threats
A strengths-based, improvement-focused outlook for planning has merit in some situations. But in a time of rapid change in higher education, a focus on threats is critical. Newspapers that concentrated on enhancing the readability of printed text or the most efficient delivery system for hard copies in their long-range planning would not have been able to address the threat from online newspapers and other internet-based news media.
3. Solicit and carefully consider feedback from stakeholders
Higher education has traditionally been internally focused. Yet feedback from within and outside the institution can help identify threats and opportunities. Advisory boards, external evaluators, consultants, potential employers and others can help an institution envision a future that is more than simply an extension of the past.
4. Don’t fight the trends
Changing demographics and an increasing reliance on tuition are likely factors that will influence higher education planning for many years to come. Planning should include a delineation of those factors most likely to exert a continuing effect on the institution.
5. Control what you can control
For example, ensuring program quality and reducing expenses are within the realm of institutional control. Raising revenue through fundraising campaigns, reallocating funds internally, and exploring partnerships with other entities that allow for cost-sharing are other options that typically are within the prerogative of higher education institutions.
6. Maintain flexibility
Ensure that the planning structure has a built-in process for reflection and revision, prior to the end of the plan. This will allow the strategy to be modified in response to unexpected new realities. Given the realities in higher education today, changes that lead to a need for modification are very likely to occur in the five-to-10 year span of a typical plan.
7. Have an honest discussion and dialog
Don’t begin the discussion with a completed plan. Implementation will likely be successful only if the people who will do the work share the goals and direction embodied in the plan.
Planning in higher education is perhaps more challenging now than it has ever been. Yet by focusing on the institutional mission, recognizing threats and opportunities, understanding which elements of a plan are within the control of the institution, being flexible, and listening to a broad range of constituents, the probability that a plan will provide useful guidance for an institution increases. Good luck with your plans!
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 University of Denver Strategic Issues Panel on Higher Education. Unsettling Times: Higher Education in an Era of Change. September 2014. http://www.du.edu/issues/media/documents/higheredreport.pdf
 SHEEO. State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) Study. 2014. http://www.sheeo.org/sites/default/files/project-files/SHEF%20FY%202014-20150410.pdf
 Higher Learning Commission. The Criteria for Accreditation and Core Components. https://www.hlcommission.org/Criteria-Eligibility-and-Candidacy/criteria-and-core-components.html
 Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement (Fifth Edition). 2012 http://www.sacscoc.org/pdf/2012PrinciplesOfAcreditation.pdf
 WASC Senior College and University Commission. Developing and Applying Resources and Organizational Structures to Ensure Quality and Sustainability. 2013. http://www.wascsenior.org/resources/handbook-accreditation-2013/part-ii-core-commitments-and-standards-accreditation/wasc-standards-accreditation-2013/standard-3-developing-and-applying-resources-and-organizational-structures-ensure-quality
Author Perspective: Administrator