Higher ed must create digital first strategies taking them into the future in a sustainable and impactful way.

by Dustin Ramsdell

Higher education faces the difficult task of navigating digital transformation and disrupting long-held institutional paradigms. Leaders must create a forward-looking digital first strategy, propelling them into a sustainable and impactful future. 

As an epilogue to our recent podcast content series in collaboration with the Enrollify Podcast Network, we’re translating the advice and insights gained from those interviews into actionable steps. This playbook enables and empowers institutions to take the lead in digital transformation.

What is a Digital First Strategic Plan?

A digital first strategic plan encourages institutions to rethink building for the future. Institutional planning often overlooks digital experiences, treating them as an afterthought or mere footnote. In the current educational environment, characterized by the growing number of commuters, adult learners, hybrid or fully online students, it’s crucial we shift perspective and prioritize diverse student needs. Institutions must proactively reconsider their communication strategies, expand learning opportunities and offer supporting resources.

Why is a Digital First Strategic Plan Important?

Beginning the journey to right size towards a digital first future is critical, especially as higher ed institutions face imminent risk of closure due to compounding market forces. Increased skepticism regarding value, declining enrollment, prohibitive costs and limited flexibility collectively force colleges and universities into making drastic cuts, considering mergers or ceasing to exist altogether. Smart investments in their digital ecosystems alleviate many of these challenges, positioning institutions more sustainably as they navigate an ambiguous future.

Creating the Plan

Building a digital first strategic plan requires time and collaborative efforts from various institutional stakeholders. The insights shared by the guests in our podcast series serve as an excellent starting point for defining achievable milestones.

This plan should feel clear, distinct and attainable (make sure they’re SMART goals!). Communication is key — solicit input throughout the process and after the plan is made. While not every idea may be fully reflected in the final product, it’s critical to listen and understand the perspectives of staff, faculty and students. Addressing their concerns and hopes is important, whether incorporated into the plan or articulating why certain ideas were not included.

Implementing the Plan

After fully developing the digital-first strategic plan, the next stage involves  implementation. While significant focus is often placed on the previous phase of ideation and creation, the actual implementation and progress toward goals is equally important.

To accomplish the outlined objectives, leaders should consistently monitor and — you guessed it — communicate. Complex plans demand a hands-on approach from managers ensuring problems are resolved and progress is made. Utilizing project management tools, like Asana, Basecamp or Trello, is useful in streamlining collaboration.

Deviations from the plan will arise, such as adjusting the timeline to prioritize other tasks and recognizing the project may take longer than initially envisioned. The critical element here involves finding a balance between potential alterations and making necessary sacrifices to keep the project within its original scope — or determining how best to stretch the boundaries within reason.

Creating and implementing a digital-first strategic plan varies for each campus, with the size and scope dependent on the institution’s position in its digital transformation journey and its envisioned evolution. Reimagining these long-standing organizations for a new digital-first future presents numerous opportunities and challenges but moving forward is essential for institutions to prosper in this pivotal moment for higher education.