Broadening Engagement Through Strategic Planning

Andrew W. Bowne
Leadership Abstracts

Initially, community colleges were created to provide increased access to higher education for students who were too often excluded from college and university experiences. From the creation of junior and community colleges in the early 1900s through the latter years of the 20th century, community colleges primarily focused on increasing access to higher education for students of color, first-generation students, and students with limited financial means or academic preparation. Many federal programs, such as the GI Bill, TRiO, and Title III, provided infusions of support for this goal.

However, in the early 21st century, this focus has shifted to include increasing student success, with heightened emphasis on improving course success, retention, and completion rates. Accountability measures, such as performance-based funding, developed across many states. Organizations like the League for Innovation in the Community College, Achieving the Dream, Complete College America, and others assist community colleges in improving student outcomes and overall college performance. As inequities across student populations (e.g., Black, Latino, low-income, rural, urban, first-generation, part-time) became clear, colleges began to also focus on closing equity gaps in student performance. Institutions looked inward to see what could be done to improve outcomes while also maintaining a commitment to the original mission of increased access to education. After decades of learning how to best support students, it has become apparent that student success should not end when students leave the community college, transfer to baccalaureate institutions, or migrate to the workplace. Today’s leading community colleges, therefore, blend concerns with access, student success, and post-completion success into their core missions, with an eye toward eliminating equity gaps across student populations.

Strategic Planning as a Participative Process

Achieving equitable student outcomes across all three strategic areas of focus—access, student success, and post-completion success—is most readily achieved when community college teams work together and seek broad participation and commitment, both internally and externally, to the strategic planning process. Many community college leaders believe strategic planning provides the optimal opportunity to focus faculty, staff, and community partners on the priorities most critical to the success of the students and, therefore, the college. To be effective, the strategic planning processes must consider, define, execute, and evaluate strategic intent. Strategic plans are intended to provide a roadmap for resource allocation (e.g., financial, staffing, technology) while reducing the likelihood of succumbing to the temptation to “be all things to everyone.” Although approaches to developing strategic plans can vary, the desire for a shared commitment to the strategic plan is best achieved through a broad-reaching, participative process that engages all internal stakeholders, including employees, students, foundation board members, and trustees, as well as external community, business, and education leaders.

Process Continuity Is Essential

Given the desire for broad support, it can be helpful for colleges to form a cross-functional strategic planning council (SPC) to ensure that the people leading the strategic planning process remain true to achieving active, broad engagement across the institution. The SPC also makes sure that work products are consistent and reflect the themes identified at each stage of the planning process. Individuals on the SPC should represent the many groups involved in the strategic planning process as well as the diversity of the campus to strengthen its credibility with the broader college community. Process continuity is aided when the college president and others tasked with leading the strategic planning process also serve as SPC members.

Strategic Planning Council Accountability

Once established, the SPC reviews the college’s current mission, vision, and value statements, and members evaluate their own professional experience to identify areas of strength as well as opportunities for growth. An environmental scan report providing an analysis of many variables within and outside of the college can be indispensable in helping identify demographic (e.g., racial, ethnic, population), economic, education, technology, political, and social trends and projections. It is beneficial for the SPC to work with the President’s Cabinet to develop initial mission, vision, and values statements based on data from the environmental scan as well as any other helpful inputs.

The newly drafted mission, vision, and value statements, which may be identical, similar, or completely different from the college’s existing statements, will serve as foundational documents for the subsequent strategic planning work. Once the drafts are finalized, it is critical to distribute an electronic survey to all faculty, staff, and students to obtain their feedback and to gauge levels of support for each. In addition to collecting feedback, the survey is instrumental in increasing engagement in the strategic planning process with others in the college community. Using an external partner to compile and summarize the survey feedback reduces the likelihood of bias and invites an opportunity to develop new insights as well. The aggregated feedback is used to finalize the mission, vision, and value statements.

To further develop a widely accepted plan, an appropriate next step in the strategic planning process is to train faculty and staff facilitators to lead the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis sessions with internal and external participants. SWOT findings can be summarized and analyzed by the external partner and reviewed and affirmed by the SPC and President’s Cabinet.

The SWOT analysis findings and environmental scanning documents inform the development of strategic goals created by the SPC and President’s Cabinet. Draft goal statements are distributed to the broader college community for feedback, again using an electronic survey. Once the strategic goals survey feedback is gathered and the goals are finalized, they, along with the new mission, vision, and value statements, are shared with the board of trustees for feedback and affirmation.

When the goals have the initial support of the campus community, President’s Cabinet, and board of trustees, it is best to recruit interested volunteers and subject matter experts to assist in further developing strategies to serve the goals. Using a strategy mapping process (e.g., Simplex creative problem-solving), trained faculty and staff facilitators meet with groups to develop and prioritize two to three strategies for each goal.

The proposed strategies are reviewed by the SPC and President’s Cabinet to add clarity and resolve any duplication of strategies across the goals. At this point, it is beneficial to hold multiple campuswide information sessions to describe each goal, discuss related strategies, and gather initial feedback. These information sessions should be followed by electronic surveys to gauge support for the strategies, request additional feedback, and provide further guidance. Additional in-person and virtual feedback sessions with external community members can ensure the plan is supported by both internal and external stakeholders.

It is important to have an effective measurement system in place to ensure the strategic plan drives improved student outcomes and serves the needs of the broader community. A group of skilled and interested faculty and staff can help identify and select the appropriate metrics and targets to measure each goal. Metrics selection should take into consideration existing data as well as new indicators that can help measure progress. One or more comprehensive presentations to the board of trustees helps secure final approval and formal adoption.

Once the entire strategic plan—including the mission, vision, and values statements; goals; strategies; and metrics—are finalized and adopted, it is critical for momentum to shift toward implementation. Successful strategic planning efforts often include well-defined strategies that may take two years or more to be fully implemented as well as action plans providing single-year, tactical-level detail designed to contribute to accomplishing longer-term strategies.

One of the challenges with realizing student success and access outcomes is that strategic plans, once completed, are often left on the proverbial shelf. To avoid this, college executives should appoint and resource an adequate leadership and volunteer structure responsible for fully executing the strategies and action plans.

Presidents may find it helpful to identify goal champions or sponsors and strategy leaders to keep implementation moving forward. Monthly or other regular progress updates should be provided to the internal and external communities. Goals, strategies, and metrics should be formally reviewed on an annual or semi-annual basis by the SPC, President’s Cabinet, trustees, faculty, staff, and students who have been involved in plan development and implementation. Each year, this larger group can determine what changes, if any, are needed to achieve the desired results. Ultimately, the board of trustees must review these progress reports to determine if any adjustments to the plan are warranted. When managed effectively, broad involvement across the college community increases buy-in and commitment to the development, implementation, and assessment of the strategic plan, and, in the end, the community we serve benefits from increased student success.

Andrew W. Bowne is President of Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.