Today's higher education leaders are living through unprecedented times. The pandemic upended business as usual for colleges and universities, causing the largest enrollment decline in a decade, a staffing shortage and other challenges. According to survey data from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), 74% of colleges and universities now face financial constraints, while 37% are struggling to execute long-term institutional change.
To increase resiliency, and to better align themselves for the future, colleges and universities must take a more holistic approach to planning, assessment and data-informed decision-making. To do this means embracing a new era of Institutional Effectiveness. It is by no means a new concept, but in order to work, today's new era of IE must be ingrained across the entire institution and should not be limited to a single office or department.
Institutional Effectiveness is a broad concept that encompasses both the traditional measures of institutional health as well as modern operational characteristics. The Society of Colleges and University Planning (SCUP) defines IE as "a higher education institution's effort to organize evaluation, assessment, and improvement initiatives so the institution can determine how well it is fulfilling its mission and achieving its goals."
Like many things in life, Institutional Effectiveness is easier to define than it is to implement. But now we can't deny the urgency for institutions to get these next steps right when it comes to executing their short-term and long-term strategic plans. Institutional change can take a long time, and while a holistic approach is encouraged, it's usually not feasible (or recommended) to try to tackle everything all at once. Therefore, it's important to recognize which areas require immediate attention in order to successfully steer the college or university in the right direction.
Here are four key indicators to watch, and how to determine if your institution is on the right track:
1) Financial Sustainability
Accreditation bodies are getting serious about financial sustainability. Institutions of all sizes need to demonstrate they are good stewards of resources and are planning wisely for the future.
- On the right track: The institution can point to evidence of planning, including tools that allow leaders to regularly review internal and external resource justification. Financial health metrics are transparent and available to key leadership and stakeholders outside of the finance team.
- Needs improvement: Financial planning is done in an ad hoc fashion and the institution can only describe a process rather than show evidence. This is a sign that the institution needs to reevaluate how it's conducting this critical activity.
2) Student Learning Outcomes
Learning outcomes assessment should benefit both the institution and the students. Too often, assessment is done in a silo to meet accreditation requirements and marginally used to improve instruction and learning. Future students will demand more concrete verifiable skills from their educational journey to ensure employability.
- On the right track: Institutions are able to use direct assessment to ensure academic outcomes are being achieved, as well as documenting which skills and achievements individual students have learned through badges and skills-based transcripts.
- Needs improvement: Outcomes assessment is done solely to address accreditation requirements and does not directly benefit students.
3) Organizational Synergy
Cross-functional collaboration is key to institutional performance. It's not uncommon for an institution's organizational and cultural differences to become siloed factions when they are focused on different issues and success metrics. For example, the finance team is focused on state appropriations, expenses, revenue and tuition; enrollment management is looking at applications, yield, headcount and credit hours; the academic leadership team is tracking retention, completions and course success; and marketing, communications and fundraising tend to have their siloed responsibilities as well.
- On the right track: Collective metrics are shared and understood by all departments and used for data-informed decision-making.
- Needs improvement: Leaders in different departments don't understand the metrics from other areas, don't have access to them, or it's viewed as "not my problem."
4) Organizational Agility
Consider an institution's response time to market and external shocks. The pandemic forced many colleges and universities to react quickly to "the new normal," exposing weaknesses in how quickly they could respond — and respond effectively. Having access to integrated data on finances, admission, enrollment and student success can allow an institution to make quicker and better decisions on how to move forward.
- On the right track: Institutions have the data and culture to quickly react to changes. Staff members come to meetings with actionable data to explore and answer questions.
- Needs improvement: Institutions are slow to react, lacking the resources to pivot and adapt. Staff members come to meetings with excuses: "We don't have the data so we can't make that decision," or "The data is too messy."
While most institutions already have a strategy in place to guide evaluation, assessment, improvement and innovation initiatives, I'd argue that your strategic planning process is only as good as your data. Plans not informed by reliable data and cross-functional collaboration and analysis likely won't achieve desired outcomes.
Future-proofing higher ed means knowing what's coming and not waiting to enact a plan. In terms of what's coming, we know advancements in technology, changing accreditation requirements, student demand, and employer-led education and job training (to name a few examples) are quickly changing the nature of how we learn and how we work. When it comes to future planning, embracing the new era of Institutional Effectiveness is the way forward.
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