A Walk Through the Strategic Planning Process

Rising expenses, tuition rates and fees matched with falling graduation rates. Society questioning the value of higher education – as well as the debt-driving costs.  Discount pricing strategy that eats profits.  Unstable endowment returns.  Fewer high school graduates combined with a west-ward migration and shift in ethnicity.  And let’s add an aversion to better serve post-traditional students.

As the CEO of your institution, you need to be working closely with your board on what your strategic plan is – with special focus on your business model – because institutions will be shuttering their doors in the all too near future.

The Journey Begins…

When working with CEOs and board chairs, I like to ask the following questions, so I can better understand opportunities to add value.

Target Audience

Ideally, this should be clearly identified in the mission statement – but typically it isn’t.

And this is a topic that should be very detailed in terms of demographics, psychographics, wants, needs, perceptions and expectations, as well as how they go about selecting an institution and program (selection process and criteria).

After getting a clear understanding of who the target audience is, I will ask questions like:

  • How many people in your target audience reside within your target market?
  • Has the audience been growing/shrinking/flat over the past 2-3 years?
  • What are the projections for audience size for the next 5-years?
  • What are those projections based on?
  • What are their wants and needs?
    • Has this changed over the past 1 to 5 years? If so, how?
  • What are their perceptions towards education? Why?
    • Has this changed over the past 1 to 5 years? If so, how?
  • What are their perceptions towards your institution? Why?
    • Has this changed over the past 1 to 5 years? If so, how?
  • What is their process for identifying an appropriate institution and program to enroll in?
    • Has this changed over the past 1 to 5 years? If so, how?
  • What are their selection criteria at each stage of the selection process?
    • Has this changed over the past 1 to 5 years? If so, how?

Do I expect details responses to all of the above? No.  But these are the types of questions that, when answered, will help identify opportunities and threats as well as help develop a strategic plan that is more focused on data and insight.

Target Market

This is the geographic area your institution serves members of the target audience – so for some, the target market could be county-wide or a 50 to 100-mile radius around the campus.  For others, state-wide, regional, national or international.

What’s important here is to make sure everyone is on the same page.  And to be very honest, many times there is a lot of misunderstanding about the geographic area your institution focuses on – and that can negatively impact performance.

For example – the presence of online courses and/or programs will cause many to suggest that “…the world is our target market…”

And unless your institution has global brand awareness and is actively promoting its programs and services around the globe, your target market is not “the world”.

And unless your institution is enrolling a significant number of students from all nations around the world – your target market is not “the world”.

Product, Price, Place & Promotion

Do you have the right programs and services, available in the right physical locations and modalities, at the right price for your target audience in your target market with the current competition? 

Do you have effective student recruitment and retention efforts?  Are your media, messaging, offer and contact strategies effective and efficient?

Those are just some of the key questions used to start conversations and these questions, along with the responses should keep in mind the competition and what’s going on in the target market as well as the world at large.


Because your programs and services, pricing, location(s)/modalities and promotion can be impacted by the external factors such as competition, government/law, economy, society, and technology. 

For example, you offer undergraduate engineering programs – and so does your competition but their programs are ABET accredited and your programs are not.  Add to that the arrival of a larger manufacturing firm that projects a need for 1,000 new, entry-level engineering positions over the next three to five years – and they prefer ABET accredited programs.  Oh, and the people in your target market – members of your target audience as well as the general population – are more aware of your competitor and perceive them to be a ‘top notch engineering school.’

What that scenario lays out is the opportunity to generate more enrollments in your engineering programs, but substantial threats from the competition due to your weaknesses in the area of accreditation.

At this point, it is important to dive into the external factors and address the following question:

  • How might the competition, government/law, economy, society and technology help (opportunities) or hinder (threats) your institution’s ability to achieve its goals and objectives?


Who does your audience view as your competition? Why?

Who do you view as a competitor even if your audience doesn’t?  Why?

 What audience(s)/segments do they serve? How do their programs compare with your own? What about their pricing? Modality? And their promotional efforts aimed at new student recruitment?  What are their retention and graduation rates?

Another important area to understand is faculty – how do your competitors recruit, compensate, train and development their faculty?  What are their requirements for faculty to be considered for employment?

What are their strengths, weaknesses? And do they provide you with opportunities or threats – or both?


The government can pass legislation in a number of areas at the local, state and federal level that can open up tremendous opportunities as well as create threats.  Staying on top of what is being discussed, proposed and voted on in a critical step in your survival.

Many will focus on actions related to education, or just higher education.

But many will overlook the importance of [ex] the state legislature approving an incentive package aimed at attracting a tech manufacturing company to the area – even when the company will need thousands of employees with college degrees and on-going education to stay current.

Of course, beyond monitoring their actions, you should have an agenda that you are proactively executing so that your interests are protected.


What is the job market in your target audience? What are the projections for job growth – and in what types of positions?  What are the education requirements for those positions and how might that impact target audience demand?

For example, if the projections for job growth are in the areas of engineering, healthcare and finance, will your audience be pursuing the degrees necessary to fill those positions or are their interests in other areas?  (If they are interested in other fields, do you offer those programs?)

If the economy is slowing down and unemployment is expected to rise, what will those people need to learn so they are employable again? Do you have those programs?


Beyond your target audience, what does the population in your target market think about higher education?  And what is their perception of your institution and the programs your offer?  Do they see your institution as the “best in the area”?  Or do they feel your competition offers a more valuable solution to their needs?

Welcome to Gen Z.  They have grown up with smartphones, watched the 2008 Recession impact their family and have come out of it all with a desire for lower risk, higher stability in their careers and finances.

They are also more digital than previous generations.  Oh, and they have shorter attention spans.

What’s all this have to do with technology?  Gen Z will expect a seamless, smooth digital experience with your institution at all points of contact so you are going to need to be focused on providing an experience that is on par with the digital experiences they have with organizations across multiple industries – from Amazon to SnapChat, Instagram to YouTube and beyond.

From This Insight Comes Goal Setting, Strategy & Tactics

With the insights generated from the above, the next step is to generate realistic goals and objectives, which then drive the development of strategies and tactics.  And I am a firm believer that at the tactical level, the success comes from details – who does what, when, why and even how.  The reason I feel this level of detail is key is that this is where the plan will succeed or fail.  Strategies and tactics sound great in the conference room, but working out the details to ensure the resources exist and all the proper departments and personnel understand the roles is best done in the planning sessions because waiting for that “moment of truth” can lead to unwanted surprises and failure.

Written by

Strategic turnaround consultant and writer.

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