Insights on Higher Education Strategic Planning

Student's hands holding pieces of a puzzle to show student financial services piece for higher education.Higher education strategic planning is a cornerstone for institutional success.  A Strategic Business Plan is a needed, useful and mandatory tool for articulating an institution’s mid to long-term goals and directions. An institution’s Strategic Business Plan should cover a period of 5 – 8 years and be a “living” document subject to revisions if unforeseen factors outside of institutional control dictate modifications during the “life” of the Strategic Business Plan. A SBP should be a roadmap of the highest order that has been carefully crafted and vetted by all constituents and stakeholders. Once consensus has been reached there needs to be understanding, agreement and buy-in by all constituents and stakeholders for all of the goals of the Strategic Business Plan and how those goals will be achieved.


Achieving Goals and Objectives

To achieve the objectives and goals for the SBP requires that those responsible for obtaining the goals set short-term objectives and establish processes and administrative structures required to meet the overall objectives of the Strategic Business Plan. Assessment and measurement tools must be determined at the start of a SBP to measure benchmarked sub-processes to achieve the objectives of the Strategic Business Plan. There should be a monthly or bi-monthly schedule for all team members and stakeholders to review sub-steps required to achieve the long-term goals and objectives of the Strategic Business Plan. Such progress (or lack thereof) needs to be communicated and reported to the owner of the Strategic Business Plan.

Ownership and Responsibilities

Strategic planning Chart on paper, person writing it out.The “owner” of the Strategic Business Plan is the highest-ranking officer of an institution of higher education (typically the President or the Chancellor). The owner of the SBP needs to delegate the needed authority to the team stakeholders in such a manner that they can be successful in accomplishing the objectives of the SBP. If the scheduled periodic meetings of stakeholders show that needed progress is not being made to achieve the desired objectives and goals of the SBP, the SBP owner needs to critically ask “why”. If resources are required to put the team back on the needed schedule to meet sub-processes required for overall goal achievement, the owner of the Strategic Business Plan will need to determine: 1) are such resources an institutional priority; 2) are such resources fiscally feasible; 3) is the goal that is attempting to be achieved in the Strategic Business Plan still a priority and 4) if not, modify the SBP with the input and comments from all stakeholders and constituents of the overall Strategic Business Plan. However, such modifications should be very carefully evaluated before being changed if there was validity and reasonableness in the initial development of the Strategic Business Plan.

If the goals and objectives of a well-developed and fully vetted Strategic Business Plan were initially crafted with broad and critical-thought input from all stakeholders and constituents, lowering the expectations, goals and objectives by the owner of a Strategic Business Plan should never be a management tactic to support and accommodate under performance of the team charged with the authority for achieving the objectives of the Strategic Business Plan.

Ideally, all Strategic Business Plans will meet their objectives and goal achievements as intended without modifications. Unfortunately and from focusEDU’s observations and experience the failure rate of SBP’s is over 50% from the initial intent and design of a Strategic Business Plan.

Higher Education Strategic Planning – Causes for Failure:1

  1. Lack of Alignment Between Strategy, Objectives, Vision and Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s)

Some institutions develop visions, strategies, objectives and KPIs independently of each other, not understanding that they are related and should be linked in the Strategic Business Plan. Even though they may focus on seemingly different and distinct areas they are all contained within the context of the whole (the institution). The fact that they are not aligned results in lack of focus, direction and impact. The idea is to fix on a vision first, then identify a strategy that will get the institution to that goal. Once the strategy has been agreed to by stakeholders and constituents, five to six key business objectives for the next 12 months can be agreed upon and with them the measurement tools that will assess the progress (or lack thereof) towards the achievement of the objective(s).

  1. Lack of Discipline

Lack of consistency in discipline will affect the outcomes from any Strategic Business Plan. A lot of discussion, time and effort can go in to developing the strategic plan for an institution. The biggest reason that they fail is that the action elements are not applied, monitored regularly or refined when required. This results in lack of focus and direction. It, also, results in lack of energy if actions aren’t being completed since nothing can be achieved. People, by their inherent nature, need to see progress being achieved toward goal objectives.

  1. Lack of Accountability

As part of the Strategic Business Plan, actions required to achieve the benchmarks need to be developed. Each action will have a deadline and a sub-owner. If the Strategic Business Plan owner (President) does not encourage accountability for completion of the actions, then people will realize that there are no consequences for lack of action and the drive to complete them will be pushed to the background when other, often immediate, challenges arise.

  1. Lack of “Breathing Room”

When managers, leaders and team members are so busy that they cannot lift their heads away from the immediate requirements of their routine business, it is difficult for them to find time to get the “breathing room” to address the medium and long-term elements of the SBP and institutional goals. It is human nature to focus on the immediate, however, it does not help an institution progress towards the completion of an objective, which makes it impossible to successfully realize a vision. It takes practice and discipline to carve out some time to the future to ensure that decisions made and actions taken will assist with getting the institution to where it intends to be through the successful goal achievements specified in the Strategic Business Plan.

  1. Lack of Courage

It is easier to focus on the functions of our responsibilities when those are our strong suits and we know we are good at them. The natural tendency is to achieve NOW. It can be more difficult to spend some of our time focusing on the future – that may be uncertain, may have risk and may be uncharted territory. We all need to be courageous enough to challenge what we are doing now, what is comfortable for us, than to adapt to changes which may be difficult in the short term, but will have greater impact in the longer term.


1 Adapted from concepts authored by Maureen G