Strategic Planning in Higher Education – Best Practices and Benchmarking

Executive Summary and Key Findings


This report examines best practices in strategic planning at higher education institutions and profiles the strategic plans and planning processes in place at five specific institutions. The discussion has been informed by three areas of concern common to many higher education institutions: the need to manage changing funding models, the need to seek more sustainable support from key constituents, and the need to improve student recruitment and retention.

The report comprises the following two sections:

  • Section 1 examines best practices in strategic planning for higher education institutions. We discuss common pitfalls and guiding principles for gaining buy‐in, implementing the plan, and financial planning. In addition, we profile two successful strategic planning processes, including the timeline, participants, procedures, and lessons learned.
  • Section 2 profiles the strategic plans of five specific institutions and identifies common trends among them. We examine these institutions’ strategic planning processes and strategic goals and initiatives, as well as implementation and monitoring methods.

Key Findings

Planning Process

  • Strategic planning involves 1) formulating goals, objectives, and action steps, and 2) monitoring implementation, tracking progress, and revising the plan. During the initial planning process, conducting comprehensive institutional research is crucial to determine appropriate goals and objectives.
  • Involving stakeholders in the planning process can help build broad support among diverse constituents. In particular, the planning committee benefits from members that represent a variety of institutional roles, demographic groups, and campus units. In addition to building buy‐in, a diverse committee helps to anticipate the future cross‐unit coordination necessary to carry out goals and objectives.
  • Planning committees include an average of 25 members at the institutions profiled in this report. While this average is higher than the recommended 10‐12 members, it allows for broad participation. The committees often consist of senior administrators, faculty, staff, one or two students, an alumni representative, and a representative of the institution’s foundation. Participating staff and administrators represent units such as academics, student affairs, facilities, operations, enrollment management, information technology, institutional research, alumni relations, athletics, and budgeting.
    • At Morgan State University, listening sessions, town hall meetings, and a regularly updated website promoted involvement from a wide swath of the campus community.
  • The profiled institutions have strategic plan cycles that range from five to 11 years, based on planning processes that lasted eight to 16 months. Some consultants note that short plan cycles can better address unforeseen challenges. For instance, each year, the College of William & Mary (W&M) revises its five‐year strategic framework, produces a budget that reflects strategic priorities, and outlines implementation steps for the coming year.
  •  A short plan cycle may also mitigate the tendency to front‐load or back‐load goals during the planning process. These pitfalls can lead to unrealistic timelines and/or a loss of momentum.
  • Aligning the budget with the strategic plan helps increase the plan’s impact. For instance, redesigning an institution’s budget request form to include strategic importance can ensure that key initiatives are implemented. W&M provides an example of such a budget process. By building wide‐ranging support, establishing institutional priorities, and setting evidence‐based metrics, the strategic planning process can also help support fundraising campaigns.

Goals and Initiatives

  • Ensuring students’ academic success, diversifying financial resources, improving infrastructure and operations, promoting community engagement, and developing institutional branding emerged as common strategic goals among the five profiled institutions. Related initiatives include increasing enrollment and retention, improving alumni engagement, building sustainable facilities, establishing relationships with community organizations, and creating a marketing strategy.
  • The strategic plans contain five to six goals, with 19 to 31 associated initiatives. The number of initiatives corresponding to each goal varies widely, from one to 11, depending on the scope of the goal. Additional initiatives include projects related to the internationalization of curricular offerings, campus safety, and experiential learning.

Implementation and Monitoring

  • The plan should answer the question “How will we know if we reach this goal, and how will we prove it?” A comprehensive implementation plan describes, for each objective, action steps, anticipated outcomes, criteria of success, a timeline, benchmark indicator(s), assessment method, necessary resources, and the person or office accountable. Linking strategic accomplishments to administrators’ performance evaluations may also help to incentivize implementation.
  • Reporting annually on the institution’s progress can sustain momentum after the plan has been approved. Indiana State University holds an annual stakeholders conference for this purpose. W&M and North Carolina A&T State University use annual scorecards to report performance on 20‐26 key metrics. Including a mix of short‐, middle‐, and long‐term objectives in the plan also improves motivation by creating opportunities for measured success early on.
  • Benchmark indicators vary widely depending on the specific outcome desired. The majority of benchmark indicators are items such as retention rates, number of students accessing services, U.S. News rankings, or the dollar amount of research grants. Additional assessment methods may involve reviewing policies and procedures, or analyzing the results of surveys and focus groups. In these cases, the indicators may be revised internal documents or improved survey ratings.
  • In addition to tracking institutional progress on benchmark indicators, it can be useful to monitor the status of individual implementation steps. For instance, W&M groups all implementation steps into one of four possible categories: “not yet started, underway, completed, [or] adopted into continuing practice.” This method guarantees that no steps get “lost” in the implementation process.

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