Strategic Planning. Now’s the Time.

by Katie Sloan

Be prepared to enhance college and university master plans.

Carter Senior Vice President John Jokerst. In today’s challenging economic climate, colleges and universities are faced with a unique situation.  While state-appropriated funds to support new facilities on public campuses are becoming scarce and endowments at private institutions have taken a hit, more students are attending institutions of higher education than ever before. This growth trend is anticipated to continue.

In response, institutions are working hard to determine how to recruit and retain the best students in a highly competitive environment. In the short term, many institutions need to provide competitive facilities, such as improved student housing. Thankfully, opportunities in the capital markets that were not available a few short years ago are beginning to emerge.


Staying competitive, however, is not just about the short term. It also requires a long-term vision and a strategic implementation plan to make the vision a reality.  Even if some colleges and universities are struggling to bring facilities on line today, they must be thinking strategically about their futures and the needs of tomorrow’s students. That way, when funding opportunities become available, they are properly poised to execute and thrive instead of playing “catch up.”


Institutions typically are required to have master plans, which are important tools for mapping out the future growth of campuses. The master plan takes into account the campus infrastructure and reflects the objectives and goals of the institution’s development from a facility standpoint.  Unfortunately, some colleges and universities go through the process of bringing on talented architectural teams to create or update master plans, secure input from multiple constituency groups, make numerous presentations and get necessary approvals. However, they do not complete the drill from a strategic implementation standpoint.  What happens?  The master plan sits on the shelf for three, five or seven years until it is time for the next update, and the potential strength of the plan largely goes unrealized.


A strategic implementation plan, however, takes the master plan to the next level.  It shows the institution how to turn the master plan into a reality. At Carter, we start a strategic plan by looking at the master plan and then taking a step back.

First, we work with the institution to determine what pieces of the plan are most important to fulfill the overall vision for recruitment and retention. After this assessment, we work through the following:


  • Prioritizing needs.
  • Determining which individual building programs support the overall plan.
  • Creating realistic project budgets that take market conditions and inflation into account.
  • Evaluating financing / funding alternatives.
  • Creating a phased timeline with critical milestone dates for moving the plan through the detailed programming, design, pricing, funding and construction processes with all the required approvals.


One example of a strategic implementation plan involves an institution in the University System of Georgia. Through a public-private venture, Carter led the university from initial planning through completion of nearly $200 million in capital improvements to meet the demands of surging enrollment numbers and unprecedented growth.


The project was completed over the course of six years with no state-appropriated funds. Carter provided:


  • Strategic visioning sessions with administration and constituency groups.
  • Preparation for update and approval presentations.
  • Presenting on behalf of the institution as required.
  • Financial analysis and model formulation for potential projects.
  • Project conceptualization and planning.
  • Selection of design and construction teams including architects, consultants, contractors and developers at risk.
  • Budget and schedule development.
  • Financing coordination.
  • Design and construction management.
  • Project accounting


The project added or renovated 1.5 million square feet including six residence halls, student health center, student union and two parking structures. The project was critical in helping the university attract and retain students.


A strategic planning process not only is required for a project of this scope, but for smaller, more targeted initiatives as well.  For example, a project like a new student housing facility can raise questions that must be answered before the project can start. For example:


  • Do you need new facilities or can existing facilities be updated and utilized?
  • Will such an approach really support the programmatic needs of today’s students?
  • What are the cost implications?
  • What are the funding implications?
  • How would any potential new projects be phased to replace existing facilities without losing bed count?
  • How can you get all this done and not miss a critical fall semester opening?


Whether it is a short-term or a long-term project, strategic planning is critical to ensuring successful implementation of an institution’s capital improvement initiative.  Even if the economic climate may still pose challenges, it is not the time to sit on the sidelines and wait. There has never been a more competitive time in recruiting and retaining students than now, and there is no better time to be strategically poised than today!



— John Jokerst is the senior vice president of Atlanta-based Carter, a real estate
development, investment and advisory firm that was founded in 1958. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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