How academic planning supports accreditation in higher education
What is academic planning?
Academic planning in higher education is planning that outlines a college or university’s overall academic goals and how those goals will be met. It identifies long-term and short-term objectives to match the mission of an institution with the needs of learners.
The purpose of academic planning usually consists of finding what the student profile is, what programs and services students need, what image the institution wishes to project to parents and students, and lastly how to measure success regarding these questions and how they overlap with the institution’s goals.
Academic planning can take place even if an institution doesn’t have a formal academic plan. This can be performed through actions such as program planning (degrees, majors, certificates, etc.), research planning, assessment, academic policy and structure, specific department goals, or measurement of learning outcomes.
Higher education institutions, as well as most other kinds of educational organizations, perform academic planning to match their academic offerings with the needs of learners, to identify and commit to research priorities, to position themselves for sustainable success in the future, and to achieve more efficient operations in a relatively short time.
When is academic planning done?
Academic plans are usually approved for up to seven-year cycles. Revisions and updates are always in order, and a certain degree of dynamism is to be expected in these cycles so that unforeseen or short-term events can be addressed within the plans. These events include, but are not limited to: accreditation or re-accreditation processes that may come up sooner than expected, changes in the labor market prompted by world events or technological breakthroughs, or more detailed strategic planning actions.
How is academic planning done?
Depending on the institution’s culture and history with planning, academic planning can take a top-down or bottom-up approach.
In the top-down approach, an institution’s top academic leadership develops a strategy and then works with the academic leadership of individual units/programs to create specific plans for specific disciplines.
In the bottom-up approach, individual unit/program plans are combined with other unit/program plans to create one unified plan for the institution.
Regardless of the approach, academic planning requires assembling a planning team or committee to guide the process, seeking broad stakeholder input, reviewing data about academic program performance, identifying larger trends that will affect the institution’s research and teaching activities, determining goals and defining strategies to reach them, drafting action plans, and adjusting the plan as needed along the way.
Integrated planning and its importance in academic planning
Integrated planning is often seen as a sustainable approach to planning that eases all related processes by building relationships, aligning units and disconnected or seemingly unrelated planning processes within the organization, and highlighting an attitude of readiness for change.
Financial, technological, academic, and resource management units may be working on area-specific tasks that converge into particular institutional goals of the academic plan, and integrated planning allows for a more productive collaboration, along with more detailed tracking of goals and milestones.
Academic planning can often be seen as a responsibility reserved for few specific actors, who are often high the chain of command. This issue can be mitigated by the engagement of other groups, which democratizes the planning process and distributes the load of managing and allocating resources to better respond to the institution’s needs.
The role of academic planning in academic accreditation
All accreditation bodies require evidence of integrated systematic planning, resource management and allocation, and alignment with the institutional goals, objectives, and strategies. Also, these organizations look at how the assessment of student learning outcomes from program review data is being used, both from an academic and administrative perspective.
The problem is that, oftentimes, this evidence resides on spreadsheets that, on top of not being updated and shared regularly, are scattered all over an institution’s departments. This prevents a planning cycle—which should work continuously within the framework of an ideal academic planning process—from starting. This cycle consists of planning, implementing, allocating resources, and evaluating results.
Technology can come in at this stage to help institutions manage and analyze their data to improve their operations, as well as to generate the necessary evidence required for accreditation. Another underestimated benefit of academic management technologies is the reduction of planning and assessment fatigue, which sets in easily with poorly organized planning strategies.
Another valuable advantage is that these new technologies reduce slow and tiresome data entry procedures in favor of analysis and forecasting, which allows professionals to use their expertise on-campus, transforming the institutional mission into concrete goals and outcomes.
Planning is a manifestation of institutional culture—of its values, mission, and vision. Thus, it begins and ends with campus culture and with its people. Culture matters and institutions have to work within the bondaries of their culture, making sure all stakeholders are heard and properly catered to according to their needs, but also take into account how those needs interact with the institution’s goals.