You want your goals to produce results, but by addressing symptoms instead of causes, you’re only scratching the surface. Set your sights on what you ultimately hope to achieve instead of focusing first on what you think you need.

Higher Ed’s problem with short-sighted goals

It’s goal-setting time at your institution, and the following ideas float around the table:

“We need a new brand!”

“We need a new program!”

“We need a new website!”

While these things may be true, it’s likely that what you really need is more students.

You’ve gone through the process—you’ve identified weaknesses in your higher ed institution or office and set goals around them. You’ve even made your goals S.M.A.R.T. So you work to pursue them, and maybe you even achieve them. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself at your annual board meeting or faculty retreat as you describe the process you underwent and the results you achieved.

But what if you never set the right goals in the first place?

Goal: a buzzword trumpeted from all corners of the modern world, from board rooms to soccer (football?) stadiums. Just Googling the term yields about 919,000,000 results, which speaks to how much the concept of goal setting has permeated just about every industry and endeavor. Yet for a term that boasts such prominence in modern society, goal-setting is a concept that is curiously misunderstood by a large proportion of those employing it. Truly, it is a skill that many attempt and few do well.

Author and CEO Vishen Lakhiani breaks it down for Forbes by highlighting the difference between “means” goals from “ends” goals. He explains, “A means goals is something you do in order to get to the experience you want to have. It is usually followed by a ‘so’” For example, I want to get a 9-5 job, so I can save up, so I can someday travel the world. When instead, if you focused simply on traveling, you could find many other opportunities that will help you get the experience of traveling right away.” This happens all too often not only when individuals set goals, but when organizations set them as well. So how does this play out in higher ed?

  • You may need a new brand, but does your current brand speak to larger institutional problems—silos, internal competition— that need to be solved?
  • You may need a new program, but are you looking to programmatic expansion because your existing programs aren’t drawing a sustainable amount of students?
  • You may need a new website, but is there dissonance in how you present your institution at multiple levels?

When looking to grow in today’s hyper-competitive higher education market, institutions are constantly searching for ways to position themselves as relevant and prominent. Yet in this pursuit, many make the mistake of jumping straight to tactical-level goals instead of strategically addressing the root causes that are keeping the organization from success. They’re making the “mistake of setting means goals, instead of ends goals.”

These institutions are turning to things like branding and expansion to solve an enrollment problem. While utilizing best practices in these areas should ultimately be embraced, focusing only on these solutions keeps the institution from addressing the actual problem. Examples of “ends” goals in these situations could include such aspirations as 8% year-over-year growth or a 25% increase in active students. Only once you commit to high-impact, enterprise-level goals—and achieve institutional buy-in on them— can you start on the path to achieving them.


To learn more about how to reach your enrollment growth goals, download our free Enrollment Growth Playbook.


Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.