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Strategy Planning

5 Steps To Highly Effective Strategic Planning In Higher Education (FREE template)

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A crystal clear strategic plan can be the big difference between becoming the leading university… VERSUS ending up at the bottom. You know - where you struggle to attract students, the right staff members or even funds to support your institution.

So, in order to achieve your university’s goals, you need to learn how to build an effective strategic plan. 

In this blog post, we will reveal:

  • The #1 reason university strategies fail
  • The overlooked role of a strategic plan for higher ed
  • The 5-step process you can follow to build a plan with your team

But first…

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What is strategic planning in higher education? 

Strategic planning is the process an institution follows to realize its vision of its ideal future state. It’s a roadmap for getting there. Your vision becomes a reality through the process that defines specific goals, needs and actions. It helps you to structure and contextualize information leading to important decisions. 

Sounds obvious, right? 

So, the question is:

Why do so many universities fail at strategic planning?

Because they forgot what the main role of a strategic plan is.

Most universities and colleges work on some form of strategic planning, but they usually come out as a 28-page PDF. They create an impressive presentation with shiny headings, upload it to their website and consider themselves successful. 

The end result is a ‘strategic plan’ that serves more as a marketing brochure and less like a roadmap to success.

strategic planning in higher education

What’s wrong with this usual approach?

Most vice-chancellors and vice presidents are not even aware of what they are losing. Staff members and faculty members work in silos with no focus on the big picture. Departmental plans are unaligned with the overall strategic plan. This leads to inefficiency, wasted resources, and things getting missed.

Clearly, this approach lacks the organization and accountability necessary for success. As a result, some institutions are losing their reputation, while others are losing program accreditation, experiencing declining student success, or having fewer funds available.

Sometimes all of the above. 

Strategic planning goes beyond ambitious and attractive presentations that describe the organization’s state in the next 5, 10 or more years.

Now let's take a closer look...

What is the real purpose of the strategic plan in higher education?

Your first and foremost goal should be to stay true to the promises you made to your stakeholders.

Think of your strategic plan as the foundation to achieve your long-term goals.

It’s supposed to help you translate high-level ambitions into tangible actions at a departmental level. Furthermore, it organizes everyone so that they can do those actions and report on them in a systematic and transparent manner. 

It serves as a guiding light for your staff, allowing them to focus on the things that drive real progress towards the university's strategic goals. 

On top of that, it’s an important resource for planning your yearly budget allocation. Even in the most difficult financial times, integrating strategic planning and budgeting throughout the organization creates opportunities for success.

It's obvious, isn't it? You need to stop treating your strategic plan as merely a glorified marketing document.

What are the 5 steps in the strategic planning process?

This five-step process will help you to craft a strategic plan that goes beyond marketing and delivers on promised results.

1. Understand your current situation

An effective planning process starts with a thorough understanding of your current situation. 

You can start by asking these questions: 

  • What are our core competencies?
  • Which important KPIs are trending over the last few years upwards? 
  • Where do we notice a drop in performance? What led to this drop?
  • Where do we want to be in 5 or 10 years?
  • Do we need to develop new programs?
  • How do we get there? 
  • What external factors can impact us in the future?

Search for answers and go deep into every department and aspect of your institution. From financial health and university rankings to student enrollment, retention rates, and placement rates.

Next, understand the expectations and needs of your internal and external stakeholders.

Remember, top-down approach doesn’t work for universities. Higher education institutions are highly interconnected with their community and shouldn’t neglect its interest when making strategic decisions.

Collect feedback from every stakeholder group whose expectations affect your performance:

  • Students
  • Alumni members
  • Faculty members & campus community
  • Community groups
  • Senior administrators
  • External partnerships

Include their input into planning and translate it into the institution’s major goals. Embrace this collaborative approach and prevent too many unexpected "buts" in the future.

Don’t forget that you’re only collecting information at this stage, not brainstorming solutions or action plans. 

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Cascade tip:

The SWOT analysis framework is still one of the most effective methods for evaluating internal operations and the external environment. Be honest and thorough in your evaluation. You can use it numerous times through strategic planning but you should start early in the planning process.

2. Lead with vision and values

Your university's vision is a part of its identity and a powerful latent tool.

Higher ed institutions of any size can utilize it, but they usually don’t. They don’t believe that people care about the big picture or that it affects the university's daily operations.

However, a clear and unique vision statement will set you apart from the competition and make you more memorable to potential students. They will know exactly what to expect from studying at your university and why they should come. 

At the same time, it gives a strong sense of pride and belonging to current students, faculty, and alumni. It becomes an emblem that attracts the right students, staff members, and funding opportunities. 

Here’s an example of a vision statement for the university: 

We will work as one Oxford bringing together our staff, students and alumni, our colleges, faculties, departments and divisions to provide world-class research and education.

- University of Oxford

You can take it one step further and include your institutional mission statement. 

And don’t forget about the values. They define your university’s culture. They determine how people act, which behaviors are praised and which are condemned. 

When you build a culture intentionally, then everyone inside and outside your school knows what you stand for, reinforcing all the benefits of a harnessed vision.

Cascade tip:

One of the biggest blockers to the successful execution of a strategic plan is the attempt to accomplish too much at once. Creating a Vision Statement will help you to avoid that trap right from the start. It becomes your north star guiding your strategy. It will be easier for you to identify what is relevant and worthy of your attention versus what isn't.

3. Concentrate your strategic planning efforts on key areas

There's a problem most presidents and strategic planning committees face: they don't define the real focus of their plans. 

You see, you can’t achieve everything, everywhere, all at once.

Your resources are limited, and you should prioritize accordingly. 

I’m glad you followed the first two steps. Now you have all the information you need to identify the biggest and most urgent challenges your university faces.

Clarifying the obstacles ahead of time helps you prioritize your strategic goals and develop focused efforts to achieve them.

For example, let’s say you’re creating a 5-year strategic plan. Here are some key focus groups you might want to focus on: 

  • Provide superb undergraduate experience 
  • Ensure graduate education and lifetime learning 
  • Increase community engagement 
  • Increase research excellence 
  • Optimize financial resources

Focus areas help you decide what falls outside the university's priorities and prioritize your strategic planning efforts. 

Cascade tip:

We usually suggest creating between 3 to 5 Focus Areas. Any fewer and they will probably be too vague. Any more, and well..... you lose your focus. Dive deeper into focus areas with this guide

4. Translate plan into tangible actions

This is the part that turns your strategic plan into reality. 

If you ever want to achieve your goals, you need to break down the plan into smaller, granular pieces specific to each department. Start by adding strategic objectives to your focus areas. 

The secret to writing great strategic objectives is simplicity and specificity. Avoid jargon and use a verb to indicate action. Accompany it with a deadline and preferably an owner (or two).

Here is an example:

Increase citations per faculty by 5% by May 2024, owned by Jane Doe.

The next step is to migrate from goal-setting to action-planning with projects. Projects describe what you’ll do to accomplish your objectives.

Projects articulate a set of actions within a certain timeline. They include specific tasks, milestones, dependencies and dates (deadlines). Every objective should include at least one project or action-like event. Otherwise, you’ll never achieve any progress towards it.

Of course, nothing is so linear, but this process forces you to come up with action plans to support every strategic initiative and allocate funds and your staff’s time appropriately.

Cascade tip:

One of the most important steps in the planning process is to take the high-level plan and break it down into tangible actions at the departmental level. 

Cascade helps you to achieve that with planning models completely customizable to your strategic planning approach. 

You can create a university-wide strategic plan and then break it down into portfolio or departmental plans. Clarify their goals, projects and key metrics. Collaborate with your teams to build multiple inter-connected plans and tie them back to the overall plan.

higher education strategic alignment

You get complete visibility into how different plans or projects are connected and contribute to the overall strategic plan. 

5. Don’t forget to measure progress

There is no perfect strategic planning for higher education (or anywhere for that matter). 

Every plan can be derailed by events beyond our control (such as a pandemic, change in public policy, or an unstable economic environment on a global scale). There is, however, disciplined execution through regular reviewing habits. The secret lies in the way you measure your progress and the frequency of reviewing it.

Determine the indexes that you want to improve and then set key performance indicators (KPIs) to drive and measure your performance against set targets. 

Here are some examples of KPIs you might want to keep track of:

  • University ranking
  • Post-graduation placement rate
  • Number of students involved in undergraduate research
  • Fundraising ROI

Establish the KPIs you will be reporting on in advance, and always end your reviews with a "next steps" discussion.

Cascade tip:

Create dashboards to measure progress in real-time. Cascade’s customizable dashboards help you to quickly identify areas that are underperforming and act before it’s too late.

Zoom your screen in on the screenshot below to check out Cascade's beautiful dashboards!

higher education kpi dashboard

Extra tip: Use Cascade reports to help you demonstrate your success in a transparent way and attract more investments in the key areas of your university. 

What’s next for your university?

Most university’s failure to reach their strategic goals isn’t because of bad strategy, but because strategy is constrained by PowerPoint. Kept miles from those who can make it happen. The best in Advancement, the finest HR, the most profound ideas - they’re all framed in slides rather than shaping every day’s activities for everyone across the university.

Remember, a strategic plan isn’t just a glossy presentation to attract new students or to get that accreditation approval for your academic program. It’s a manifesto for every employee to embrace and enact in whatever they do at your university. 

So, the next step is to transform your strategy from an intellectual exercise to an executable plan. It’s just a matter of shifting your approach and using the right tools. 

And once you make that shift, you’ll be able to create an organized and aligned approach to make your strategic goals happen.

Do that and get your plan to everyone, and your competition will be choking in your dust.

Are you ready to create your plan and start executing it? Turn your strategic plan into a competitive advantage with our 100% free, battle-tested strategic plan template, built for teams in higher education. 

Free Template Download our free Higher Education Strategy Template Download this template


Topics:Strategy PlanningStrategy for teams

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