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 3 provides guidelines for mapping your ideas to the institution's strategic plan and framing them in a way that demonstrates their impact and value to the institution.
Aligning and Setting Your Goals
In the first part of this series, we discussed the importance of understanding your institution’s mission and vision. The second part discussed crafting an aspirational mission and vision for transfer efforts based on the SOAR model.
Once you identify your focus, you are ready for the most important part of the process—making a plan for progress! When making your plan, draw on your SOAR experience to understand desired outcomes. These outcomes can be flexible, as circumstances may, and inevitably will change. For now, think about the most positive changes you would like to see in your future efforts.
[Note: One of the pitfalls many groups face as they begin work on these plans is having the mindset of “We’re going to do what we’re already doing, only better!” There is nothing wrong with trying to improve your current state. However, improving existing processes and services is part of completing an overarching goal rather than a goal itself.]
Begin the alignment process. Look for overarching themes or focal areas in the information you gathered during your SOAR visioning effort. Using your review of the institutional strategic plan, “map” your new ideas against its foundational themes. For instance, if you aspire to increase the level of institutional belonging among the transfer population, you might look back at the sample foundations in Part 1 and see that such an effort potentially aligns with four of the foundations (and perhaps more, depending on your framing): Enabling Access to Education; Engaging Our Students; Advancing Inclusion, Equity, and Diversity; and Enhancing Global Engagement.
Examine the language in those foundational themes and values. As you consider setting your own goals, try to incorporate or align your ideas to give an easy, brief answer to the question, “How does this work support the institutional strategic plan?” Finding keywords and terms should be a relatively simple process. On the other hand, if this proves difficult, you may want to consider a different angle for getting a similar outcome.
Utilize the SMART technique. Once you have targeted an area where you hope to work, it’s time to set some goals. Many tools and techniques can help you create goals and establish objectives for reaching those goals. Choose a method that best fits your particular team.
One well-documented method of creating goals and objectives is the SMART technique. This goal-setting technique is generally attributed to Peter Drucker’s 1954 book, Management by Objectives, and has been adopted by and adapted into multiple industries, including higher education. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
This technique provides a process for being more specific and targeted about what you and your institution want to accomplish.
S – Specific
Lack of specificity (such as “We need to do this because it’s the right thing to do!”) is a major flaw in many failed strategic plans. As you design your goals, asking many of the “basic W” questions can help. Consider these questions:
• Who needs to be involved in achieving the outcome?
• What are you trying to accomplish?
• Where (locale, positional responsibility, event) will this take place? (This question may not always apply, but if there is a location or relevant event, identify it here.)
• Why is this important enough to be part of your plan?
M – Measurable
What tangible measurements will you use to determine when you have met your desired outcome? Since the plan may take a few years to complete, set some milestones. Milestones are a series of checkpoints along the way to the eventual completion of your primary outcome.
• You should have a source of information to measure or determine the achievement of a goal. Ensure that the information you need is available and that the person responsible for reporting on it has access.
• Measurement methods can be quantitative and/or qualitative.
• Define what a successful outcome would look like.
A – Achievable
This step focuses on what can be done to make your goal attainable. A plan is meant to inspire motivation, not discourage participants. Think about these questions:
• What resources are required (funding, personnel, timeframe) to accomplish the desired outcome?
• Are sufficient resources available?
• Is the outcome realistic given these constraints? (If not, what additional resources are necessary?)
R – Relevant
Is your work well aligned with the mission and vision of the institution, or are there extraneous or unrelated activities that you can omit? Consider what is relevant to your plan. (You may already have answers to this piece after mapping the work you hope to accomplish to the institutional strategic plan.)
T – Time-bound
Creating a target date for deliverables is vital for preventing stagnation in progress toward your goal. Consider the outcome deadlines and what can be accomplished within those periods. For instance, if the desired outcome will take three years to complete, consider setting three-to-six-month milestones to track progress throughout the process. Working backward from your final deadline to determine checkpoints offers a good perspective. A good rule of thumb is to check in at 25%/50%/75% intervals of the total length of time you expect to achieve your goal.
This piece includes a template that may help you think through your process.
Now that you have crafted a goal to achieve, consider the significant actions required to fulfill this goal. In planning terms, these are your objectives. Challenge yourself to think about change—specifically, change that also works alongside what the institution is trying to accomplish strategically.
For instance, if you are attempting to reduce the length of time it takes to evaluate a transfer student’s transcript as an aspect of improving overall service during the transfer experience, then you will likely need objectives involving intake and processing, contact with academic units, articulation agreements, etc. In each area, you should be able to articulate specific tasks and deadlines to achieve the desired outcome.
Determine what comes next. While strategic thinking can be inspiring as you consider possibilities for the future, grounding it in reality is a challenging intellectual task. If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back. You now have a roadmap for achieving your goal and can share it with transfer advocates around your institution to build momentum. You might even try to arrange a working group to pursue the goal. Ask yourself, “What can I do in the next week to achieve my goal? The next month? The next semester?”
On a larger scale, consider getting involved in the strategic planning processes at your institution. Committees and working groups in charge of these processes always seek volunteers. When you join one of these committees, which tend to be composed of people from many areas around the institution, you will have the opportunity to increase awareness of the necessity of providing resources for transfer students.
Being strategic about your hopes for transfer students allows you to bring good ideas closer to reality and helps you understand how the various processes for progress work at your institution. Good luck to you as you increase your involvement in those processes. As a transfer advocate, you should represent transfer students in as many contexts as possible
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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