When it comes to integrated planning, budgeting, and assessment processes—the kind of linkage Middle States seeks under Standards 2 and 7, strategic plans are viewed not as static documents, but dynamic and continually evolving ones. For such documents to be dynamic, institutions of higher education need to continually scan the environment, review and test scenarios and contingencies, and make adjustments to strategies, resource allocation, or even strategic goals/objectives, as necessary or appropriate. In other words, one need not wait 3, 5, or even 10 years before reaching a conclusion on the impact of a strategic plan.
Environmental analysis can involve a SWOT (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) assessment. This can be a rigorous and sometimes expensive proposition and SWOT assessments are usually periodic exercises (once every 5-10 years). Another approach involves surveying graduates, employers, and even prospective students. Yet another approach entails the review of externally-produced studies that address the environment in which colleges and universities function.
The Lumina Foundation’s annual progress report is one such document. The just-released report provides some important insights. Examples include:
- Jobs requiring at least a college degree increased in number during the 2007-09 recession, and such positions have seen an acceleration in growth since then.
- Employer surveys indicating that a third of employers cited a “lack of technical competencies/hard skills” as their main obstacle to hiring lent further support to the importance of a college degree.
- The demands of a knowledge-based economy (societal complexity, rising importance of information and information technology, and global business environment) are increasing the need for well-educated graduates.
- Educational attainment in the U.S. is “uneven.” Some demographic and socioeconomic groups are underrepresented in the pool of college students and graduates, while others are overrepresented. Low-income students, Hispanics and African Americans are particularly underrepresented, even as the nation is undergoing demographic change that increases the importance of closing that gap.
This evolving environment presents both challenges and opportunities for colleges and university. There are opportunities to innovate to develop effective approaches for providing the intellectual framework that is important for today and tomorrow. There are also opportunities to target the attainment gap to increase graduation rates for underrepresented groups. One challenge entails developing, refining, and measuring (or assessing) a wide range of academic and support services to identify those that are most effective. Another challenge concerns finding/allocating resources to bring about that outcome. A strategic approach that integrates planning, budgeting, and assessment can encompass all those opportunities and challenges.
Those kinds of activities are consistent with the idea of a dynamic strategic plan. Even more important, they are consistent with the principle of continual improvement in higher education that is at the heart of accreditation..