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Strategic and Long-Range Planning in Higher Education

Long-Range Planning, Strategic Planning, Contextual Planning, Cooperation and Leadership in Planning, Conclusion

The major test of a modern U.S. university, according to Clark Kerr, President Emeritus and former Chancellor at the University of California, is how wisely and how quickly it is able to adjust to important new possibilities. As its popularity and presence has grown on college campuses, planning has become the process-oriented means to pass the test of change referred to by Kerr. Planning has been defined by Marvin Peterson as the "conscious process by which an institution assesses its current state and the likely future condition of its environment, identifies possible future states for itself, and then develops organizational strategies, policies and procedures for selecting and getting to one or more of them" (Peterson, p. 12).

Planning became a necessary component of higher-education administration after World War II, due to the rapid expansion and growth of federal policies regarding access to, and financial support of, higher education. Soon thereafter came the surge of baby boomers into colleges, and in the 1990s institutions prepared for and responded to the echo boom of college-age students on campuses across the United States. In addition, colleges have become increasingly heterogeneous as more diverse populations have been admitted, resulting in the need for planning regarding financial aid, student services, remedial education, vocational education, and more.

Furthermore, various types of postsecondary knowledge providers have emerged, such as private companies offering degrees via the Internet, corporations providing their own internal education and training, and traditional institutions collaborating with industry. Simultaneously, the knowledge industry has become quite consumer driven. The convenience and affordability of postsecondary education has caused students, employers, and institutions themselves to rethink the very core of the institutional mission, and to plan for the future much differently than ever before. Globalization has broadened the institutional view of the regions served, as well as placement of students in intern-ships, exchange programs, and careers. All these factors have produced an approach to planning that includes much more than simple short-term budgeting. Rather, planning encompasses short-and long-range plans connecting budget, capital outlay, programming, enrollment, and every element of a college or university.

Long-Range Planning

Following World War II and through the 1960s, the purpose of long-range planning was to justify resources. Use of long-range planning presupposes that the environment is fairly stable and predictable, and that resources are certain. This use of long-range terminology has been trivialized because it often was, in effect, the university budgeting process. The idea that planning was tied to a dollar amount meant that the planning process actually represented how to spend resources. The popularity of this method declined in the latter part of the 1970s, because it did not account for certain environmental aspects that became critical.

Strategic Planning

As long-range planning began to seem limited, strategic planning became the buzz phrase in both business and in higher education. Frequently advocated in the late 1970s and 1980s, strategic planning's primary purpose is to cultivate adaptation in a rapidly changing environment by designing a plan and corresponding strategies for the future. The institutional situation is assessed for opportunities and threats via scanning the regional, national, and global external environments, the most distinctive feature of this form of planning. Also, internal strengths and weaknesses are defined for needed strategies for survival and enhancements. Strategy implies that the approach is more short-term, and possibly reactive to a current situation. This process assumes that some aspects of the organization do not require intervention and seeks to find the problem areas that need improvement. Often this occurs when the environment is unstable and relatively unpredictable.

Contextual Planning

Whereas long-range planning is typically responsive in nature, and strategic planning is adaptive, contextual planning is proactive. Particularly in the 1990s, planning progressively became connected to fundraising as federal and state financial subsidies declined. Needing to compensate for the loss of funding, institutions were forced to seek funding support from private sources. Combined with the impact of technology, globalization, and the increasing presence of nontraditional-age learners to the collegiate environment, institutions have sought new and different ways to plan for the realities of uncertainty.

Emergent virtual universities have caused leaders to move away from thinking about planning at a traditional physical campus and toward being more perceptive about planning for other possibilities. Existing as part of an increasingly complex organization with little stability, new and different planning models are constantly implemented, based on political demands, business models, or internal leadership. This method of planning assumes uncertain financial resources, an ever more competitive environment, and a critical public.

Cooperation and Leadership in Planning

The higher-education mantra since the 1990s has called for improved access for students, increased quality, enhanced accountability of expenditures, and more and better use of technology. While these promote positive change, the irony is that there is no easy solution to achieve change, and the solution is different for each institution. In order to progress toward goals, it has become necessary for strategic planning to be linked to major programs, such as institutional research, institutional advancement (also known as development or fundraising), and data management (also known as data warehousing).

Planning has spurred more and different kinds of analytic studies in order to make internal and external comparisons, both historical and contemporary. These studies are used not only to plan for programmatic and curricular transformation, but also to identify competing institutions and potential students and donors. This information is critical to raising the private funds that have become necessary for many institutions.

Due to the constantly changing environment of higher education, research has shown that planning should be an ongoing, rather than occasional, process, done in collaboration with institutional research and assessment. There already exists a massive amount of data related to planning. As higher education continues to search for ways to manage this information, data support and knowledge-management systems will become increasingly crucial to effective planning.

The thoughtful and effective leaders of change have resisted the idea of planning as a formal process. An effective planning process should be a broad-based balance of deliberate and emergent strategies, and should involve the participation of middle managers. Fundamental to this idea is that planning should not be bogged down in specific strategy; but should create broad visions. Additionally, a positive relationship between managers and planners or administration is critical to successful implementation of plans. This requires strong leadership that will include hands-on contributions by frontline managers and faculty. A pragmatic consideration that can assist in bolstering internal political relationships at institutions is frequent and thorough information dissemination. These considerations will allow for participation at many levels, and will make good communication a cornerstone of the process. Essentially, planning at the institutional level is connected to planning at the division level, which is integrated with individual plans and includes leadership and vision at every echelon.


As the paradigm of higher education continues to shift, it is clear that the institutions that resist change are predestined to decline, and possibly fail. Effective leaders realize that reasonable risks must be taken in order to attend to the demands of a changing and competitive environment. "A lack of thoughtful change could lead to inept adaptation and undermine the quality of our universities" (Rowley et al., p. 19). While the approach and methods vary, it is clear that planning is a vital component of successful contemporary higher education.


KERR, CLARK. 2001. The Uses of the University, 5th edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

PETERSON, MARVIN. 1999a. "Analyzing Alternative Approaches to Planning." In ASHE Reader on Planning and Institutional Research, ed. Marvin Peterson. Needham Heights, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

PETERSON, MARVIN. 1999b. "Using Contextual Planning to Transform Institutions." In ASHE Reader on Planning and Institutional Research, ed. Marvin Peterson. Needham Heights, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

ROWLEY, DANIEL JAMES; LUJAN, HERMAN D.; and DOLENCE, MICHAEL G., eds. 1997. Strategic Change in Colleges and Universities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



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