Planning Your Future: From Futility to Focusing

On my first day as a college president, I looked behind the desk and saw two six-inch, three-ring binders. I was told that the binders contained the college’s ten-year strategic plan that was two years in the making. I was further advised that they had been sitting on the shelf since the plan had been approved by our governing board with little or no action towards implementation. The dust that had settled on the top of the binders attested to this fact.

Strategic planning in colleges and universities is often seen as a critical tool for guiding institutions towards future success. Accreditors typically mandate a strategic plan as one of their standard requirements. But, does the process work? Does the process produce a real roadmap for future success?

Traditional Strategic Planning

Traditional strategic planning in higher education has typically involved developing a long-term plan, often spanning five to ten years, based on a set of assumptions about the future and are generally resistant to change once they have been established. The process is usually long and time-consuming, ensuring that ideas, thoughts, suggestions, concerns, or complaints offered by every group are presented and thoroughly discussed. As a result, strategic plans in higher education usually produce a massive number of projects and initiatives of which there is never enough time or resources to begin and accomplish.

As a result, there is growing evidence that this process has become more of a perfunctory exercise rather than a viable tool for progress by producing static, long-term plans that cannot swiftly adapt to the changing landscape of higher education.

Growing Ineffectiveness

A study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) found that less than 20% of higher education leaders believe their strategic plans are very effective in driving institutional success. This indicates a significant disconnect between strategic planning efforts and the actual operational and competitive needs of these institutions.

Similarly, a survey from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 58% of board members reported that their institutions’ strategic plans were not very effective at addressing emerging trends such as technological advancements, demographic shifts, and changes in state funding. This reveals a fundamental shortcoming of traditional strategic planning: its inability to adapt swiftly to a changing environment.

There are several reasons cited for this lack of effectiveness.

  • Lack of Meaningful Impact:  Many strategic plans fail to enjoy strong consensus regarding their meaningfulness and impact on the institution’s trajectory. This lack of consensus often leads to strategic plans that do not serve as effective guiding lights for the future of colleges and universities. Trustees and faculty members frequently question the time-consuming and arduous process of strategic planning, noting that it often results in little real impact.
  • Outdated Assumptions and Questionable Metrics:  When strategic plans are based on outdated assumptions, their effectiveness in addressing current and future challenges can be limited. Additionally, these plans frequently use questionable metrics and mechanisms for accountability, further undermining their utility. Conventional strategic planning tends to foreclose options rather than raise questions and identify opportunities, which stifles innovation and adaptability.
  • Disconnect Between Strategy and Execution:  A significant issue with many university strategic plans is that they are often composed of outcomes or ideals without a clear articulation of strategy. This disconnect between strategy and execution means that strategic plans become unfunded “wish lists” rather than actionable roadmaps. Furthermore, there is often a failure to make connections between investments and outcomes, which hampers the ability to measure success and make informed decisions.
  • Challenges in Adoption and Communication:  The adoption of strategic plans is often slow, and there is a lack of ownership among stakeholders. Poor strategic alignment and communication further exacerbate these challenges, making it difficult for institutions to implement their plans effectively. Different approaches to strategic planning are hard to sell because they challenge conventional expectations, leading to resistance and slow adoption.

While traditional strategic planning is intended to guide colleges and universities towards future success, it often falls short of this goal. I believe that the primary reason is that the process is focused on the process, not results. To make strategic planning a viable tool for progress, institutions need to employ a process that focuses less on a campus “wish list” and more on advancing the position of the college in the academic marketplace.

The Promise of Strategic Positioning and Focusing

Colleges and universities are increasingly having to navigate a complex and rapidly shifting landscape. Traditional strategic planning, often rigid and slow to adapt, has not kept pace with these changes. Instead, colleges and universities are recognizing the benefits of a “strategic positioning” or “strategic focusing” approach, which emphasizes agility, continuous strategy updates, and new project implementation. This approach is starkly different from branding exercises or conventional planning and is better suited to the competitive world of higher education.

In contrast to the static nature of traditional strategic planning, the strategic focusing approach is dynamic and flexible. It allows for periodic updates to strategies and the implementation of new projects in response to changes in the external environment. This approach, therefore, is more attuned to the realities of the higher education sector, where institutions must be able to respond quickly to shifts in the competitive landscape.

Strategic focusing also emphasizes the importance of carving out a distinct market position. By identifying and concentrating on areas of strength or potential competitive advantage, colleges and universities can better differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. This approach allows institutions to define their own trajectory, rather than being led by external forces or trends.

Strategic Focusing in Practice

Successful application of strategic focusing can be seen across various institutions.

  • At West Liberty University, our strategic focus on becoming a leader in health care education led to the establishment of a graduate program in physician assistant studies – the first terminal degree program at a RPC in West Virginia and only the ninth among public universities in the country. This focus also led to a new, state-of-the-art Health Sciences Building – the first new academic building on campus in over 30 years – and historic increases in enrollment campus-wide.

1.       At Bluefield State University, our focus on health care education produced three new, high demand associate programs and the acquisition of a regional hospital to house these new and future programs. In this regard, we received an $8 million grant from the State to enhance the facility with more labs and classrooms. We also became one of the few colleges in the country to experience enrollment increases during the pandemic.

  • Arizona State University has used this approach to redefine its identity and strategic direction. Recognizing the growing demand for accessibility and online learning, it has focused on expanding its digital learning infrastructure and offerings. As a result, it has seen substantial growth in enrollment and has established a strong reputation in online education.
  • The University of Michigan employed strategic focusing to prioritize its commitment to interdisciplinary research. It identified this as a key area of strength and competitive advantage. By aligning its resources and efforts around this focus, the university has enhanced its research output and improved its standing in national and global rankings.
  • The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) focused its strategic efforts on becoming a leader in inclusive innovation and education, particularly in the STEM fields. This strategic focus resulted in UMBC being recognized as the #1 Up-and-Coming University by U.S. News & World Report for six consecutive years.
  • Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) identified online education as an area of strategic focus and invested heavily in expanding its online offerings. As a result, SNHU grew from a small, relatively unknown institution to one of the largest universities in the U.S. by enrollment, with over 135,000 students enrolled in online programs.

In the face of rapid changes and increasing competition in higher education, colleges and universities need to move beyond traditional strategic planning. By adopting a strategic positioning or focusing approach, institutions can stay agile, continuously update their strategies, and implement new projects that align with their strengths and the changing landscape. This approach empowers institutions to not just react to changes but to lead in the competitive world of higher education.

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