Written by: Michael J. Rosenberg, Ed.D., Penn State University
This three-part series explores how transfer practitioners can leverage their institution’s strategic plan to advance their ideas and efforts. Part 1 describes the common elements of a strategic plan and sets the stage for connecting your transfer work to existing institutional priorities.
Understanding Your Institution’s Strategic Plan
We in the world of transfer are passionate folks. We see the challenges our transfer students face in a higher-education ecosystem that is not set up to offer them an equitable opportunity for success (as we posit in The Transfer Experience). We do our best as advocates to find ways to ease the burdens of this unjustly designed system.
However, we often run into roadblocks as we attempt to forward ideas and interventions to our various campus leaders. We plead our case, stating that we have a responsibility to transfer students to help improve their situation. Then we are asked why these changes or interventions should be top priority, and we often respond by leaning on equity and fairness as a basis. While ethically correct, we sometimes fail to communicate the positive outcomes of our work in the transfer space and the benefits to the institution at large.
In higher education, we collaborate with many folks who have their own ideas about how to improve the institution, many of which can be promising in their own right! Additionally, we operate in a world of constrained resources, both fiscal and temporal. Even well-intentioned ideas can get lost in a world of “do more with less.”
As transfer advocates and champions, can we make sure our ideas are considered by those who set the institutional agenda? Regardless of how good our ideas may be, they should find a more receptive audience if they are framed in terms of bolstering the institution’s stated priorities. The Rosetta Stone for understanding the language of institutional priorities is in the institution’s strategic plan.
Almost every college or university, large or small, has some form of strategic plan. Once developed strictly by upper administration, institutional strategic planning processes now typically involve participation from faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders.
In broadest strokes, an institution’s strategic plan addresses two basic questions:
1) Where do we want to go as an institution?
2) How are we as an institution going to get there?
From there, a strategic plan presents high-level priorities and areas for potential effort over a specific period -- five years tends to be a standard length, although some institutions may elect for shorter- or longer-term plans.
So why, as a transfer practitioner, should you be interested in learning about the strategic planning process? First and primarily, understanding the institution’s plan will offer insight into the kinds of efforts that will be prioritized during the period covered by the plan. Higher education, for better or for worse, has adopted a business mindset. We must adapt to an increasingly performance-driven environment. Determining meaningful connections between the institutional priorities and our efforts can be key to expanding our reach—whether through additional staffing, greater visibility, or expanded resources.
Second, understanding an institution’s strategic plan can help us break out of the silos in which some of our work may operate. Elements of the strategic plan are roadmaps for how the institution functions and how its various efforts intersect, offering opportunities for collaboration. For instance, many strategic plans highlight enrollment management, and transfer efforts can connect to various initiatives, whether in access, recruitment, or retention.
Third, becoming aware of the planning process offers us a chance to network and participate in the priority-setting process for the institution. Many strategic planning efforts, whether in the creation phase or in ongoing initiatives, require volunteers from all areas of the institution. Simply being a part of these efforts will expand the awareness and importance of transfer—and the more people who know, the better.
You should expect to find certain common elements when reading your institution’s strategic plan:
Mission & Vision. The strategic plan is built on the institution’s mission and vision statements. Mission statements are concise summaries of an institution’s primary purpose—be it access to education, creation of knowledge, the betterment of society, or advancing research. A large, public university’s mission statement will be quite different from that of a community college or a religiously affiliated private school. Typically, the mission of an institution does not change much from planning cycle to planning cycle.
The vision statement, however, does tend to change from cycle to cycle, as it demonstrates the institution’s aspirations for positive change. A vision statement reveals the state an institution hopes to create if the strategic plan’s efforts are successful. These statements are usually ambitious and forward looking, offering general areas for growth and focus.
When reading these, consider how improvements to transfer align with advancing the mission and vision of the institution. Drawing explicit linkages can help strengthen the case for additional work in our major area of focus.
Principles & Foundations. An institution’s strategic plan often includes a list of core principles and values that underpin institutional action. These principles usually set the expected behavioral norms of an institution, such as integrity, respect, responsibility, and community. They offer a window into what the institution purports to be. The principles tend to be somewhat nonspecific, but understanding what the university says it values provides important language for framing discussions of transfer work.
More importantly, the strategic plan typically contains a list of foundations and priorities (or both!) on which the plan is based. For instance, at my current institution, Penn State University, the strategic plan’s foundations are
Enabling Access to Education
Engaging Our Students
Advancing Inclusion, Equity, and Diversity
Enhancing Global Engagement
Driving Economic Development
Ensuring a Sustainable Future
While these foundations seem self-evident in the world of higher education, the language used in each area offers valuable data for understanding how an institution hopes to fulfill the goals. For instance, the explanation of “Enabling Access to Education” specifically mentions cost of attendance, efficiencies in operations, program development, and outreach to all portions of the Commonwealth.
Connected to these foundations is a set of thematic priorities for effecting positive change. Again, from my institution’s plan, the priorities are
Stewarding Our Planet’s Resources
Advancing the Arts and Humanities
Empowering through Digital Innovation
As another example, “Transforming Education” specifically mentions making efforts in knowledge creation, using curriculum with multiple delivery modes, improving excellence in teaching and learning outcomes, preparing students for career and life, and partnering more effectively with K-12 educators.
Examining these foundations and thematic priorities through the lens of transfer can provide obvious points of connection between our work and the institution’s efforts as it moves into the future.
Measures. Some institutions lay out specific benchmarks and targets for their strategic plans, while others choose to leave these less defined. These are sometimes called Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or metrics. As the cliché goes, “If you treasure it, measure it.” Paying close attention to what the institution defines as success can give you an idea of how your efforts can make an impact in terms of which institutional outcomes are deemed most valuable or important.
Once you have found and scanned your institutional plan with the above guidelines in mind, you can start thinking about how to leverage the plan to advance the interests of transfer students. The second part of this series will discuss how to think like a strategic planner in aligning transfer work with an institution’s plan to create detailed yet workable goals and objectives that will advance necessary outcomes.
Dr. Michael J. Rosenberg is a nationally recognized expert on transfer student policy. A higher education practitioner by trade and training, his extensive background includes experience at both two and four-year institutions in student affairs, academic advising, judicial affairs, residence life, and enrollment management. He is co-editor of The Transfer Experience: A Handbook for Creating a more Equitable and Successful Postsecondary System.
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