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Learner-Centered Strategic Planning

The EvoLLLution | Learner-Centered Strategic Planning
Learner-centered strategic planning might be the key to success for post-secondary institutions, providing a high-quality learning experience to students, which in turn drives enrollment and revenue.

Learning models, methodologies, delivery and assessments are generally under the purview of chief academic officers, academic administrators and faculties. Actual learning experiences and outcomes, however, are more squarely determined by consumers of learning—or simply stated, learners. An individual’s learning motivation and extant knowledge of focused subject matter often determines the level of self-direction exhibited by an adult learner in learning environments. Moreover, how an adult learner engages in the learning process and their consumption of curricular components is largely a factor of their learner development in terms of self-concept, readiness, experience, orientation and motivation to learn.

The perception, alignment and appropriation of planning processes differ depending on the framing of students-as-learners, students-as-headcounts or students-as-customers. Consequently, viewing students-as-learners in a strategic planning process is not simply a matter of semantics. Placing learners at the center of strategic planning is making a conscious choice to invest time and resources toward learner-driven curriculum innovation, development and delivery—analogous to consumer-driven product innovation, development and distribution. Moreover, learner-centric strategic planning aims to expand institutional learning possibilities and maximize learner outcomes, both of which are vital to college and university’s mission attainment and financial sustainability.

Extant trends suggest that highly tuition-dependent institutions must develop adaptive strategies to sustain their relevance and viability in a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive higher education environment. Along those lines, the Society for University and College Planning (SCUP) promotes a planning typology that offers a comprehensive, cohesive and “sustainable approach to planning that builds relationships, aligns the organization, and emphasizes preparedness for change.” The three strategic planning types presented below are most germane to this essay: 1) institutional, 2) enrollment management and 3) academic:

Strategic (institutional) planning

This is a deliberate, disciplined effort aimed at making fundamental decisions and taking calculated actions that shape and guide an institution’s identity. It, describes what it does, and explains why it does it. SCUP emphasizes that strategic planning is a humanistic and collaborative endeavor, noting, “Change is a people process; the strategic planning process is not a solitary activity but one that involves a number of players. Its success depends on the individuals and groups who participate in the plan’s development, application, and evaluation.”

A strategic plan is based on strategy; thus, the plan should be developed with particular strategies in mind. The phrase “form follows function,” coined by architect Louis H. Sullivan, offers relevant insight. In a strategic planning context, a strategic plan (form) should follow strategy (function), where function is the plan’s intended purpose of the plan, and form is the plan’s structure (e.g., goals, objectives, action items and key performance indicators) for operationalizing the strategy. It is critical, perhaps now more than ever, for higher education leaders to focus strong attention on intentional strategy formation as a necessarily inclusive and collaborative endeavor.

Strategic enrollment management (SEM) planning

This is an institution’s efforts to identify, recruit, enroll, retain, and graduate a student body —students-as-learners—in accordance with the institution’s mission and goals, while also maintaining financial sustainability. In his seminal publication, Strategic Enrollment Management: A Primer for Campus Administrators, Michael G. Dolence defined SEM as “a comprehensive process designed to help an institution achieve and maintain optimum enrollment, where optimum is defined within the academic context of the institution.”[i]

An academically grounded SEM concept and process facilitates the institution’s fulfillment of strategic goals and allows learners to achieve their academic goals. Dolence fortified the “S” in SEM by connecting administrative and academic rationales.  And in doing so, he unleashed the construct’s transformative power and fortuitously made space for an enrollment profession to evolve and the chief enrollment officer to emerge–some who report to presidents, and others who report to provosts alongside academic deans in the proverbial “academic context.”

Strategic academic planning

This clarifies an institution’s overall academic goals and states how those goals will be achieved. Academic planning establishes short-term and long-term objectives, including new and changing curriculum, to best ensure alignment between institutional mission and learner needs. Change management expert, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, notes “change masters are adept at anticipating the need for change as well as leading it.”[ii] Dolence was a change master who left an indelible mark on higher education planning, with respect to strategic enrollment management and academic planning.

In terms of the latter, Dolence developed a robust learner-centered curriculum framework that accentuates curricular dimensions (e.g., content, design, diffusion, delivery and evaluation). He boldly proclaimed, “Curriculum drives enrollment, enrollment drives revenue, and revenue drives everything else.” His musings reminds us that learners seek out education content and credentials expecting to achieve beneficial learning-related outcomes. Moreover, institutional financial sustainability is just as intrinsically tied to content development and management as it is to content delivery and consumption.

Engaging in learner-centered strategic planning necessitates integrating salient aspects of the noted three planning types, while simultaneously maintaining a keen focus on learning and learners’ needs as individuals and collectives. Aligned with the fundamental shift in higher education emphasized by EvoLLLution[iii], learner-centered strategic planning:

  1. Responds to the educational needs of individual learners
  2. Values learners’ common and distinct wisdom, knowledge, skills, insights and experiences
  3. Cultivates and enables diverse learning ideologies, delivery and environments
  4. Accentuates the benefits of lifelong learning, with respect to knowledge acquisition, dissemination and application
  5. Recognizes that individual learner and learner collective learning experiences yield some of the most meaningful and impactful learning outcomes for learners
  6. Supports the development of content- and context-specific learning outcomes, taking into consideration the educational needs of society—individuals, groups, organizations, communities and professions



[i] Dolence, M. G. (1993). Strategic enrollment management: A primer for campus administrators. Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

[ii] Kanter R. M. (2003).Leadership for change: Enduring skills for change masters. (Harvard Business School Case 9-304-062). Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press


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