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Strategic planning in higher education: Providing equitable access to experiences and building strong career pathways

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November 22, 2023
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6 min
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Lewis Carrol once said, 'If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.' But educators and institutional leaders know better. They know the power of planning and work diligently to build strategic plans that improve educational outcomes.

Strategic planning can be both a reflective and proactive process, one that respects the rich traditions of academic institutions while boldly embracing the challenges and opportunities of the future. 

This article will explore the importance of strategic planning for higher educational institutions and how it can be used to address evolving student expectations, highlighting the importance of aligning educational pathways with real-world applications and equitable access. 

We will examine how institutions can leverage technology and collaborative platforms like Riipen, not just for academic purposes, but also to meet the needs for employability and practical skill development.

Key takeaways

  • Strategic plans provide a thorough architecture where educational pathways, resources, and institutional efforts converge to prepare students for the professional world.
  • Educational institutions are tasked with performing a balancing act – ensuring traditional academic pursuits are honored, while simultaneously adapting to the evolving expectations of students, especially in terms of employability and practical skill development.
  • By incorporating technology and platforms such as Riipen, academic learning can be made more practical and real-world applicable through collaborations and partnerships.

Laying the foundations: A basic guide to the strategic planning process

Strategic planning in higher educational institutions is a complex process, involving committees and teams, that’s not undertaken annually. Typically, it’s a three- to five-year initiative that lays out the way the university or college intends to serve its students and its communities.

The goal is to align the institution's actions with the needs and aspirations of its learners, ensuring that the strategic plan reflects the institution's commitment to its core values and objectives.

As such, no two strategic plans will look alike. Depending on the size of the institution, funding, the type of programs offered, location, etc., each institution will have a different way to approach and implement its strategic plan.

That being said, there are some components that are commonly seen in strategic plans, such as:

  • Mission and vision: A modern strategic plan begins with clear, concise mission and vision statements that define the institution's primary purpose and its long-term goals.
  • Environmental scan: This involves a thorough analysis of internal and external environments using tools like SWOT analysis, which is crucial for shaping a strategic plan according to the current landscape.
  • Goals and objectives: Every plan will have clearly defined goals and objectives. Typically, they follow SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) guidelines, and objectives should provide overarching direction. Timing of goals and objectives is key, with adjustments made over different time frames.
  • Strategies and tactics: Strategies outline the broader approach to achieving goals, while tactics are specific action steps. For example, enhancing student employability could be a strategy, implemented through tactics like industry-relevant training and business partnerships.
  • Implementation and action plans: This involves executing the strategies and tactics through detailed planning, resource allocation, and setting timelines.
  • Monitoring and evaluation: Strategic plans require ongoing evaluation to assess progress and make necessary adjustments. This ensures continuous alignment with the institution's mission and vision.

Emerging approaches to strategic planning in higher education

As technology continues to advance and student expectations shift, modern strategic plans have adopted more innovative and data-centric methods to tackle the intricate challenges that educational bodies face.

Some key emerging strategies in this realm include:

  • Data-informed strategy: More and more educational institutions are harnessing the power of data to shape their strategic decisions. A prime example is Green River College in Washington, which has adopted a data-centric approach to promote equity, focusing on detailed data to drive grassroots changes.
  • Cultivating a unified vision and values: The focus of strategic planning is increasingly shifting towards cultivating a common vision for the future and aligning steps to fulfill this vision. This strategy underscores the significance of guiding with clearly defined visions and values.
  • Holistic planning methodology: This approach to strategic planning considers the broader picture, centering on the institution's mission and encompassing its faculty, staff, and students. It emphasizes outcome-based measurements and aims to reduce resistance to change.
  • Performance measurement: A key best practice in strategic planning involves clarity on the objectives being measured and the reasons behind them. It's vital to have a concrete understanding of what constitutes success and to pinpoint the key areas for action.

These evolving strategies illustrate a shift towards more inclusive, sustainable, and student-centric development in higher education. 

How to address student expectations with strategic planning

One of the key strengths of strategic plans is their ability to articulate the institution's thematic focus in a manner that's both loud and clear. Today, strategic plans within higher education institutions often clearly state that employability and workplace training are fundamental to their ethos. 

This emphasis resonates deeply with the aspirations of today's students, who are eager to see a direct connection between their academic pursuits and their practical implications in the real world. In fact, more than 80% of students express a desire to see more real-world, company-led projects in their coursework.

By embedding this focus in their ethos, institutions can use this to attract different kinds of students as well as to communicate their value for ROI. On top of that, a significant component of strategic planning is its emphasis on equity and the need to create access for all learners. 

It's not just about making sure everyone has access but ensuring that this access translates into real-world readiness and skills development. 

This demonstrates a commitment to student success and the overall student experience. This is key because student success is closely tied to how students engage with their education, including their retention and persistence.

By focusing on these areas, institutions are directly responding to the evolving expectations of students. This dynamic process not only sets goals but also forges pathways leading to tangible outcomes for students.

Ways to communicate employability and career readiness in strategic plans

While there are multiple ways to communicate employability and career readiness in your strategic plans, here are a few you could try:

  • Clearly outline the specific skills and competencies that are in demand and how they are integrated into the curriculum. 
  • Establish strong relationships with employers and industry leaders to bolster course offerings and provide real-world experience and networking opportunities for learners.
  • Develop robust career services that offer guidance, resume building, interview preparation, and job search assistance. 
  • Bring attention to the importance of lifelong learning and the availability of continuous education opportunities
  • Use data and metrics to demonstrate success in employability and career readiness, including graduation rates, employment rates, success stories, and other relevant outcomes.
  • Emphasize interpersonal skill development, such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and adaptability, which are increasingly valued by employers.

What are some best practices shaping today's robust strat plans?

Creating a strategic plan isn't a one-and-done type of project. Like any great plan, it's a cyclical, iterative process that necessitates regular revision, careful planning, and ongoing evaluation to navigate the continually evolving realms of academia and societal needs effectively. 

Whether you're drafting a new plan or making adjustments to the current one, here are some things you should consider.

Recognizing and prioritizing employability in the strategic plan

Developing a strategic plan that prioritizes employability and workplace training is vital for institutions looking to foster a vibrant learning environment directly connected to real-world applications.

This focus not only boosts student attraction and underscores a clear ROI but also guides the recruitment of dedicated educators and administrators, ensuring a cohesive understanding and application across all institutional members. 

Emphasizing equity and access

Equity and access consistently find their place within institutional strategic commitments, addressing the imperative to serve all, especially the underserved. 

It's not merely about ensuring everyone gets an education; it's about ensuring everyone gets equal access to all experiences and opportunities that make them job-ready. 

Understanding and nurturing the relationship between student success and experience

Student success isn't just about grades; it's about engagement, persistence, and retention. It's about providing students with the experiences they crave and aligning the curriculum to include the skills they need to succeed. This could include providing more hands-on activities or incorporating more real-world scenarios. 

Therefore, strategic planning becomes crucial to communicate and actualize an institution's commitment to fulfilling these expectations, ensuring students are educated and comprehensively prepared for the professional world ahead.

Addressing evolving student expectations

There's an ever-growing sentiment among students today: they want real-world experience and skills that will prepare them for life outside the classroom. It's no longer just about academic prowess; it's about career readiness and employability.

It's crucial for institutions to recognize and adapt to these expectations, equipping students with modern technology, tools, and real-world connections, ensuring they are both academically sound and career-ready.

Anticipating challenges and devising solutions

Every change comes with challenges. For higher education institutions, this could include issues like resistance to change, budgetary constraints, and balancing academic freedom. Even though these aspects are important and valuable, institutions need to be flexible in their strategic planning and execution.

The ultimate goal is to navigate through these obstacles in a manner that preserves the integrity of academic pursuits while progressively adapting to the multifaceted demands of the educational landscape.

Committing to the holistic student experience in all facets

A comprehensive student experience extends beyond the academic realm, encapsulating mental health services, dorm facilities, food availability, and more, each integral to a student's overall well-being. 

An institution's role in this is monumental—ensuring that a student's overall experience is positive and supportive and that they emerge job-ready, armed with skills and knowledge in tandem with market demands.

Crafting strategic plans with the modern student in mind

As institutions work to create strategies that address students' needs and expectations, they often spend a lot of time thinking about how equity, employability, student success, and student experience will be integrated into their strategic plans. They need to carefully balance: 

  • Student engagement, retention, and enrollment
  • Course and experience relevancy
  • Relationships with industry partners

The goal is to provide impactful student experiences without diluting the quality, accessibility, or relevance of their offerings. Many seek out innovative, robust solutions, like Riipen, to turn strategic planning into tangible student experiences and outcomes. 

With Riipen, institutions gain access to: 

  • A global network of over 31,000 industry partners and their current projects
  • A collaborative learning tool that lets students work on authentic, real-world projects 
  • A platform that enables equitable access to essential industry experiences for all student

By adopting Riipen, institutions give their strategic plans a tangible, actionable ally, making sure students get market-relevant skills, industry networks, and practical experience that's not just aspirational but achievable.

Umair Shah, an educator from the University of Waterloo, had this to say about the transformative power of Riipen in the educational journey:

"Riipen was presented as an alternative to case studies, and I jumped on it right away. I still remember that experience. It gave me both learning and networking opportunities, and I knew this would be good for my students…The biggest outcome was that the students could connect what they're learning in every module to the real world."

If you're curious about how Riipen can seamlessly integrate into your strategic plan and enhance employability outcomes for your students, schedule a demo

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