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Technology and the CEO >> Part 5: Accountability and Institutional Effectiveness

By John L. Ewing Jr.

Virtually every college and university today has a strategic plan. In some cases, that plan has been carefully developed, includes time-sensitive task lists for key administrators, and is updated annually based on continued relevance of the goal, as well as progress toward achieving it. In many other instances, however, one or more of these steps is lacking and, therefore, the strategic plan d'es not achieve its intended purpose. While only a tool, technology can assist a president to develop an appropriate strategic plan, help campus personnel toward the completion of tasks necessary to accomplish it, and monitor progress toward strategic institutional goals.

Technology is ubiquitous on our campuses. While we would sometimes rather not be so dependent upon it, technology is here to stay, providing unparalleled access to resources that we would have not even considered a few years ago. Our computer networks put an amazing array of data at our fingertips; moreover, our challenge is to use that information to provide meaningful and easily understood information. What are some of these recently developed tools, of immense value to presidents?

It is essential to know not only where your institution stands on the most important metrics, but also to identify where your peer and aspirant institutions are.
Development of the Strategic Plan

Strategic planning has traditionally used a process of assessing the current condition of the institution, working with various constituents to identify its future direction and setting goals. To do the latter, it is essential to know not only where your institution stands on the most important metrics, but also to identify where your peer and aspirant institutions are. Finding comparative data on these other institutions was formerly an arduous task. However, two new beneficial resources facilitating the establishment of appropriate targets for key performance indicators are now available.

One such tool is comparative data on 16 key indicators identified as vital to institutional strength. Organized under four broad categories including enrollment, faculty, tuition revenue and financial aid, and resources and expenditures, each of these key indicators is grouped in three ways—by geographic region, by financial resources, and by institutional size. Data are presented in both tabular and graphical formats. These indicators are:

  • Enrollment
  • Enrollment Change from Previous Year
  • First Year Enrollment
  • Graduation Rate
  • Student-to-Faculty Ratio Part-Time Faculty as a Percentage of Faculty FTE
  • Tuition
  • Average Institutional Student Aid
  • Net Tuition Revenue per Student
  • Percentage Change in Total Net Revenue from Previous Year
  • Tuition Dependency
  • Percentage Change in Net Assets from Previous Year
  • Net Income Ratio
  • Long-Term Investments per Student
  • Instructional Cost per Student
  • Educational and General Expenditures per Student

This tool is particularly helpful in determining how your institution compares to median data for colleges and universities within select organizational categories. After first determining which key indicators will be included in your strategic plan, you can then use this tool to help set appropriate and reasonable targets for your metrics.

Another excellent resource for benchmarking is a new, Web-based service containing data on all institutions. This service allows you to compare your institution to others, either individually or in groups that you define. Specifically, this powerful database allows you to create your own tables and graphs by examining either 206 preset variables or an unlimited number that you can define, using the variables included.

Below is a list of the variable categories and the number of variables available.

  • Fall Enrollment (10)
  • Graduation Rates (9)
  • Financial Ratios (12)
  • Balance Sheet (14)
  • Revenues (25)
  • Expenditures (28)
  • Student Financial Aid (15)
  • Staffing (8)
  • Admissions and Test Scores (28)
  • Tuition and Fees (54)
  • Admissions Strategic Indicators (2)

The real power of this database comes from your ability to create and store comparison groups. For example, you can create a group of your peer institutions and a second group of aspirant institutions. When examining mean data from these groups, you can drill down and look at the individual numbers from each institution.

Let’s say your strategic plans calls for reducing your student-to-faculty ratio. Since this database d'es not include that variable, you would go to the tab “Custom Variables” to create a variable that calculates this important ratio. Next, you can look at your institution’s history for the last six years, while comparing your data to the mean of your previously defined aspirant institutions. Finally, you can click on the mean number from your comparison group and view the number for each individual institution.

Meaningful strategic plans must contain goals both ambitious and reachable; by adapting the capacities of these two new resources to the needs of your institution, you can set goals that are appropriate as well as realistic.

While presidents should monitor progress on all goals, certain variables most critical to both the short-term and long-term success of the institution must take priority.
Development of Work Plans to Accomplish the Goals

Once appropriate goals have been set, you must next convert them into work plans that include specific tasks to be completed, timeframe for completion, and accountability, so that progress toward completion of the goal can be monitored.

New, readily available software can be very effective for organizing and monitoring your plan. This software, for example, walks you through the process of defining the project, establishing an appropriate timeline, creating a list of tasks to be accomplished, and organizing the tasks into phases. Each person who has responsibility for a goal/project will also play a part in keeping this “database” up-to-date, allowing you, as president, to quickly monitor the progress. In addition, it would be helpful to provide to your entire leadership team training in using such software to its full advantage.

Monitoring the Progress of Key Performance Indicators

While presidents should monitor progress on all goals, certain variables most critical to both the short-term and long-term success of the institution must take priority. The for-profit sector, which has long used these various tracking systems, refers to them as key performance indicators, or “KPIs.” One popular system encourages businesses to monitor lead indicators rather than lag indicators. A lead indicator is one indicative of what is going to happen rather than what has already happened (lag indicator).

For example, in the area of enrollment, the number of inquiries, applications received, applications completed, and paid deposits are all lead indicators, while the number of students who registered for class is a lag indicator. The underlying concept is for presidents to proactively monitor those indicators that will allow us to change our actions before it is too late to achieve our goal.

Within the last year or so, a number of products have emerged for monitoring KPIs within the higher education community. Some are Web-based, some server-based, and some PC-based. The most sophisticated are server-based and pull data from the institution’s administrative software system(s). What makes these monitoring systems so helpful is the use of a digital “dashboard” allowing you to determine at a glance if you are on target to reach your goals.

Typically, a dashboard will include three to five dials or gauges that you have chosen to reflect your KPIs. More sophisticated systems allow you to click on the dial/gauge to drill down to see the data. For example, many presidents choose to select growth of the annual fund as a KPI. The dashboard, then, might display a gauge showing a needle pointing to a red, yellow, or green area. If the needle is in the green, you know that you are on target to reach your annual fund goal for the year, and so forth.

You, along with your staff, set the exact parameters determining the criteria for the colors. In addition, you can build in more detail, such as the amount you need to raise each week to reach your annual fund total and what was raised during comparable weeks last year. Various relatively inexpensive, flexible options are available and although not all are specifically designed for higher education, most can easily be adapted.


Used to its full capacity, technology can make our work lives not only efficient, but more proactive, and therefore, more effective. The application of modern technology to the strategic planning process can be very beneficial. Technology is available today to set appropriate goals, to create sophisticated plans, and to monitor how well our institutions are doing on KPIs. May it make your work even more enjoyable and rewarding!

John L. (Jack) Ewing, Jr. became the 10th president of Mount Union College in 2000. He had previously served as president of Dakota Wesleyan University since 1994. SunGard SCT ( is publisher of President to President: Views of Technology in Higher Education (2005), from which this article is excerpted, and is corporate sponsor of the New Presidents program. Marylouise Fennell, co-editor of President to President, is coordinator of the New Presidents program, and senior counsel to the Council of Independent Colleges ( Scott D. Miller, also c'editor, is president of Wesley College (DE), and chair of the program.

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