by George C. Dehne
To recruit students effectively, you need a shared vision of what distinguishes your institution from others. Bringing campus constituencies together can help you achieve this vision.
At the root of any strategic-planning process lies a deceptively simple question: Who are we? Many colleges spend months, if not years, trying to answer it. The misguided among them count the number of library books, review the faculty's publishing record, and take stock of their facilities. In the process, they fail to develop a shared vision of the institution, which is the true bedrock of strategic planning.
In recent months, I have conducted workshops that challenge colleges to take a shortcut to a shared vision. We speed up the process by bringing students, administrators, trustees, alumni, and faculty together for a one or two-day session to discuss the institutional position -- with surprising results.
A strategic-planning analysis begins by answering the following questions:
Each of these questions contains a clear message, and answering them honestly will result in effective planning, better promotional programs, and institutional solidarity.
Starting from the student perspective is the wisest route. What is your institution's role if not to provide a sound intellectual and academic experience that will enrich students' lives? From my view, only major research universities can argue another equally compelling mission.
Students seek the benefits of the college experience.They are not interested in the features of your college; rather, they want to know what those features will do for them. An electron microscope holds no charm if students cannot use it. The question, then, is: "Why should an 18-year-old care?"
Before your group of institutional representatives can answer these questions, however, they need some ground rules. Trustees, students, faculty, and administrators bring different perspectives and have varying degrees of knowledge. They must be on the same course.
Agreement on terms, phrases, and usage is essential if you expect diverse groups to intelligently discuss the same issues. Spend a little time describing terms such as service marketing, positioning, strategic planning, and so forth.
Comparing your institution to norms within higher education will give the group a context for discussion. Consider what national research says about students and their view of college and life. Armed with this information, your internal constituencies will become aware that (1) your college is not alone in its problems, (2) students actually do make rational college choices, and (3) recruiting students (or raising money) extends beyond the admissions or development office to involve the entire institution.
Review your own research and other pertinent information. Examples include market studies, data from the American Council on Education's Cooperative Institutional Research Project, a survey of recently admitted applicants, or a "climate" study done for an accreditation review. Outline how various constituencies view your institution.
Before assembling the group, someone -- perhaps the president, top administrators, and the board chair -- should develop a set of "themes" that describe what your institution believes in and does well. At a workshop I conducted at St. Lawrence University, we voiced the college's concern for the "global perspective" as one of five themes.
You may choose general themes such as "liberal arts college" or "residential campus." However, this technique seems to work best if the themes are more specific and descriptive.
At the workshop, break the group into its components -- students,faculty,administrators, and trustee -- and charge the subgroups to conduct the following exercise for each theme:
After tallying group responses, the entire group should review which themes best describe your institution and serve your students, which themes have no supporting evidence, and which themes need improvement.
To date,I have conducted several of these workshops. Each time,the groups have impressed me with their spirit and with the enormous progress they made in a short time. In general,the workshops have several positive effects:
Is a positioning or theme workshop right for your institution? Yes, if various arms of your college appear to be waving in different directions. Yes, if the admissions office is not accurately presenting your institution to prospective students. Yes, if you want to get a strategic-planning process off to a fast start.
If your institution already has consensus about its direction, consider yourself fortunate, and get on with the business of making 18-year olds care about college.