Imagine you are in a large room filled with your college’s faculty and staff. One hundred percent of them represent your potential college graduates.
Now, imagine your college president directing your colleagues, one by one, to leave their table and move to the outer edge of the room. Eventually, only a small group is left in the middle. One out of four of your colleagues are still seated. Three out of four have moved to the outside of the room, looking in. This equates to 75% of the room — representing the portion of first-time, full-time community college students across the U.S. who stop out in their first three years toward a two-year degree. The auditorium is silent as this tangible visual of reality sinks in.
A version of this visualization exercise launched Wilkes Community College’s strategic planning process. The strong consensus: We can do better. Questions emerged, which fueled months of reflection and action.
New presidents often engage in strategic planning as a means to build a roadmap for the college’s future. Strategic planning is generally used as a vehicle to prioritize strategies that meet institutional goals through a continuous improvement process. Key to the planning process is a strong implementation plan and means of evaluating changes along the way — otherwise well-intentioned strategic planning documents are quickly forgotten. The pace of disruptive change confronting community colleges elevates strategic thinking as a tool primed to address challenges facing both the institution and its students.
The Belk Center for Community College Research and Leadership at North Carolina State University has spent the past year analyzing community college strategic plans in North Carolina to identify trends and exemplary practices. Here are a few key insights uncovered to date.
Know your why — and ensure everyone else knows it, too
Strategic planning requires hard work and involves significant time, talent and resources. When done right, change happens. But it all starts with commitment to engage in the process. That commitment is fueled by your why. Everyone from the president to local community partners should know why the college is engaged in strategic planning. This should be revisited frequently throughout the process. Often, the why is rooted in equitable student success. Who are we here to serve? Who are we serving well and who are we missing or losing? How do we define student success — real, transformational student success?
Include diverse stakeholders and check out your blind spots
Community colleges are place-based institutions that serve a diverse array of individual learners and partner organizations. Setting strategic goals and developing strategies for implementation requires self-examination. Avoid cognitive biases and institutional blind-spots by building cross-functional teams, integrating employer perspectives, seeking underrepresented voices and uncovering the story embedded in your quantitative and qualitative data. What assumptions are we making about our students, community and institution? Whose perspectives are we missing as we determine how to support student success?
Commit to action — and measure progress
The difference between plans that gather dust and vibrant plans that create lasting change is action. Commitment to collective action requires accountability, supportive resources, and breathing room for adaptation. Working out the specifics of implementation proves central to the planning process. Who will do what, by when, with what resources, and how will actions be evaluated?
Colleges undergo strategic planning for a variety of reasons. Compliance and accreditation are two important, but seldom inspirational, reasons. Aim for transformation. Internal and external players devote time, energy and thought to this process. The community needs to know their work will make a difference. Generating broad-based buy-in requires that everyone on campus knows about the proposed strategies for change and agrees to their role in achieving the goals. When campus members understand their role in supporting all students for success, question long-held assumptions about things that may no longer work, and continuously focus on the why of their work, all community colleges can do better, transforming lives and communities in the process.
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Zach Barricklow is vice president of strategy at Wilkes Community College in North Carolina. Pamela Eddy, professor at William & Mary, is faculty affiliate at the Belk Center for Community College Leadership & Research at North Carolina State University. Jemilia S. Davis is director of strategic initiatives and external relations at the Belk Center.