Scenario Planning: Hope for the Best, Plan for the Unprecedented

Scenario planning helps international educators face an uncertain future.
While leaders grapple with big-picture questions at the macro level, considering the institution as a whole, international educators must consider the pandemic’s effects within their own divisions. Photo: Shutterstock

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, it derailed plans for the spring semester at college and university campuses across the globe. It quickly became clear that the health crisis would not be a short-term disruption. Instead, higher education leaders—and international educators among them—began planning for the unknown for the months and years to come.

Scenario planning has taken center stage as institutions look to prepare as well as possible for multiple possible outcomes of the pandemic. While leaders grapple with big-picture questions at the macro level, considering the institution as a whole, international educators must consider the pandemic’s effects within their own divisions. That planning can start with asking, “What if?”

What if international students could not return to campus in fall 2020?

What if the institution would not be able to send students abroad?

What if the university as a whole goes to 100 percent remote learning?

What if international students return to campus, but a significant percentage of the student body becomes infected with COVID-19?

What if the campus runs out of quarantine space?

And what if student support services, auxiliary services, and other resources are significantly reduced in light of budget challenges?

“For international educators, the scenarios are very much centered around trying to forecast how many students will need to access our services, and whether [they will do so] in person or online,” says Kalpen Trivedi, PhD, associate provost and director of the international programs office at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “If you plan and think through various scenarios ahead of time, you can make operational decisions in a way that is more strategic so that you can carry on with mission-critical functions.”

Understanding the basics of scenario planning and its components—general factors as well as those specific to international education—is a good starting place. As international offices across the country have faced reduced student enrollment, an indefinite hold on recruitment travel, staff furloughs, and budget reductions, undertaking this task can guide programming and budgetary projections for short-term planning and long-term strategy. Since scenario planning takes resources and staff time, knowing how these efforts deliver a return on investment is crucial to making the case to campus leadership that scenario planning at all levels of the institution is vital for long-term success.

What Is Scenario Planning?

Closely related to risk management, scenario planning involves thinking through a wide range of potential outcomes that may result from particular circumstances—whether a global pandemic, a looming student demographic shift, a natural disaster, or some other unexpected occurrence, big or small—and developing detailed action plans to mitigate harm.

“Scenario planning generates multiple well-crafted contradictory narratives about the future to anticipate possible outcomes of environmental forces with the potential to impact an institution,” according to the Society for College and University Planning. While scenario planning cannot predict the future, it “scans and analyzes the environment to identify potential outcomes and how they might impact a college or university.”

“If you plan and think through various scenarios ahead of time, you can make operational decisions in a way that is more strategic so that you can carry on with mission-critical functions.” —Kalpen Trivedi

Paul Friga, PhD, a clinical associate professor at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, describes scenario planning as a tool for strategic planning, setting the organization’s mission, vision, and priorities to ensure its ability to progress. Strategic planning—a process frequently used in military situations—guides resource allocations for maximum returns, he says.

“Strategy is essentially managing the risk of the enterprise to be successful in its journey,” says Friga, who teaches courses in management consulting and strategy and is a senior consultant with AGB Consulting. “When macro forces change, like the pandemic, it requires a reevaluation of strategic positioning and priorities in light of a new world order.”

Scenario Planning: Pandemic Edition

At Western Michigan University (WMU), scenario planning is an integral part of the institution’s overall planning that involves leaders from across campus. Additionally, the university’s Haenicke Institute for Global Education (HIGE) has a permanent strategic planning team in place that meets regularly to develop, improve, adjust, and implement strategic operations for international education.

This team proved critical in WMU’s efforts to prepare for multiple scenarios as the pandemic spread.

“The COVID-19 pandemic underlined the need for scenario approaches, given the high levels of uncertainty brought upon higher education and society in general,” says Paulo Zagalo-Melo, PhD, associate provost at HIGE. “I feel that now we tend to take scenario building more seriously, and to be more pessimistic—or at least less optimistic—when designing and discussing these scenarios. Typically, we plan for three different scenarios ranging between a ‘pessimistic’ and a ‘realistic’ scenario. Presently, ‘realistic’ is not a very optimistic scenario.”

Staff collaborate with sticky notes on a wall
At Western Michigan University, leaders across campus collaborate on scenario planning, which has helped the university's respond during the pandemic. Photo: Courtesy WMU

Zagalo-Melo says high levels of uncertainty about COVID-19 made scenario planning a challenging and often frustrating task from March to August 2020. Collective understanding about the virus was in its infancy, and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments often conflicted or changed frequently. Moving into the fall 2020 semester, however, Zagalo-Melo says the situation became clearer, allowing the WMU planning team to regain confidence, which he describes as an important asset for planning and scenario building.

“[In the early months of the pandemic], our collective societal knowledge [of COVID-19] was being absorbed at an uneven pace, sometimes making us feel we were moving one step forward and two steps back,” says Zagalo-Melo. “It felt like driving blindfolded at times.”

Five Components of Scenario Planning

A year into the pandemic, it is clear that the ability to remain nimble and adapt to unexpected circumstances is vital. Last March, international educators across the globe went into high gear making sure that students on study abroad programs, as well as international students studying on campuses in other countries, all returned home safely. At the same time, they had to make sure that students could continue their academic studies virtually, along with making plans for the subsequent summer and fall semesters.

The Higher Education Scenario Planning Toolkit 2020-2021, developed by Hanover Research, offers five components for general scenario planning. This framework can easily translate into practice for international educators.

  1. Identify key stakeholders and influencers. Determine who will be interested in or affected by actions taken in response to the pandemic. That may go beyond students, faculty, and staff to include alumni, donors, trustees, or organizations within the surrounding community.
  2. Determine risks to stakeholders. Think about all potential outcomes, no matter how unlikely they seem to be. Students, for example, would be directly impacted if COVID-19 spread on campus. How will that affect their ability to continue their studies, and what would be the financial implications if campus were forced to close?
  3. Prioritize identified risks. Assess each potential impact to determine which ones are most likely to occur. Those should be given highest priority.
  4. Map actions to mitigate prioritized risks. Take proactive steps to develop specific plans for managing each risk factor. For example, outline detailed tactics for ensuring that students have access to reliable technology in the event that instruction is shifted online.
  5. Build contingency plans. Always have a plan B. Be prepared for potential snags in your preferred plan, and think of alternate steps that can be taken. According to the guide, “Contingency planning will help college and university leaders adapt more quickly to an ever-evolving situation and will foster flexibility in responses.”

This process takes time, but following these guidelines can help campus leaders mitigate potential harm that could result from a wide range of possible future occurrences.

Three Areas of Scenario Planning for International Education

International educators can use the same framework outlined above for scenario planning in their divisions. Specific components for education abroad, international student and scholar services, and international enrollment management include the following:

  1. Education abroad: Put in place policies and action plans to manage situations that could lead to large numbers of cancellations, returning students, fee refunds, and the development of new academic plans for the affected students. “Plan for global, regional, or country-specific drastic situations,” Zagalo-Melo says.
  2. International student and scholar services: Be prepared to support students for fully virtual, hybrid, or in-person orientation and instructional delivery. “Being ready to transition between the three modes, or even implementing them simultaneously, is critical,” Zagalo-Melo says.
  3. International enrollment management: For many institutions, this area has relied heavily on travel for recruitment. In the time of COVID-19, recruitment and enrollment management has changed dramatically. Long-term planning now must include virtual meetings and events.

“There was almost a paradigm shift [in this area],” Zagalo-Melo says. “Once the world is safer and more open to international travel, we will return to reinserting travel into [international enrollment management], but I believe it will be increasingly reliant on virtual more than before 2020. This is a drastic change in planning for this area.”

A common component for all three areas of international education is a focus on virtual meeting platforms, Zagalo-Melo says. For the near term and into the future, institutions must plan for meetings, conferences, and events to take place online frequently.

Scenario Planning Brings Return on Investment

It is no secret that the pandemic has had a devastating financial impact on higher education. Reduced enrollments and shifts to distance education have called for tuition and fee restructuring and, in some cases, for a redesign of the concept and use of campus facilities such as student residences.

Friga and his colleagues conducted an extensive review of revenue and budget news released between March and December 2020 by U.S. News & World Report’s top 400 universities, as well as its top 100 liberal arts colleges. They were able to obtain data from 107 of the institutions (21 percent).

Student posing with large wings
A student at UMass who studied abroad in spring 2020. The university's scenario planning helped prepare them to get students studying abroad back home when the pandemic hit. Photo: Courtesy UMass

“The results are dire,” Friga wrote in a February article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Our research suggests that we are experiencing the biggest financial losses our sector has ever faced.”

Revenues across fiscal years 2020 and 2021 showed “an estimated 14-percent aggregate decline,” with additional losses expected to come from reductions in enrollment, tuition freezes, and COVID-related expenses.

“We estimate the impact as follows: $85 billion in lost revenues, $24 billion for COVID-related expenses, and $74 billion in anticipated future decreases in state funding,” Friga reported. “That adds up to a whopping $183 billion.”

Those losses for higher education as a whole will trickle down to every division across campus—including all aspects of international education. By devoting time and resources to solid scenario planning throughout the year, and not just during a time of pandemic, international education offices can be nimble and make adjustments when needed.

“The  resources we might invest into scenario planning during these unprecedented times will have a valuable role in reducing feelings of uncertainty, which consequently will increase levels of self-confidence, motivation, and productivity. This is an immediate ROI of planning.” —Paulo Zagalo-Melo

The implications on the bottom line make scenario planning all the more important. Get specific in thinking through all possibilities, says Trivedi: “What if we have a 10 percent reduction in our revenue? Or what does it mean if we have a 40 percent reduction in our revenue? How do we sort out the mission-critical work of the unit, whether it’s in the realm of international students and study abroad or international travel or enrollment management? What are the [services] we absolutely have to continue delivering, and what is that going to take in terms of resources?”

“The return on investment (ROI) of scenario planning can be very high,” says Zagalo-Melo. “These are never totally wasted resources. The resources we might invest into scenario planning during these unprecedented times will have a valuable role in reducing feelings of uncertainty, which consequently will increase levels of self-confidence, motivation, and productivity. This is an immediate ROI of planning.”

Implement Flexibility

Scenario planning has always been a critical component of the strategic planning process. But the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the need for “multilayered roadmaps and scenarios,” says Zagalo-Melo.

“[The pandemic has] raised awareness for the need to plan beyond what is helpful and working well,” he says. “After 2020, our minds are sharper when it comes to planning and strategizing.”

For international offices looking for ways to revamp their scenario planning process, Friga recommends bringing in an outside adviser to facilitate. Whether employing a consulting firm or engaging a qualified expert from the campus community—such as a business professor skilled in strategic planning—an individual with an outsider’s perspective can walk international educators through the process and pinpoint links between strategies and resources.

“An outside facilitator can lead the process so that the [stakeholders] in the international office can be part of the process,” Friga says. “It’s harder to offer input if you are trying to facilitate the process.”

“[The pandemic has] raised awareness for the need to plan beyond what is helpful and working well. After 2020, our minds are sharper when it comes to planning and strategizing.” —Paulo Zagalo-Melo

Trivedi recommends analyzing historical data from the international offices to help identify trends that will enable forecasting.

“Without historical data to inform scenario thinking, you’re always going to be shooting in the dark,” Trivedi says. “Scenario focusing is not going to be 100 percent accurate, and if we could do that, we’d all be setting up a crystal ball business. But the goal is to always be within a certain margin of error…and you’re always trying to hedge against volatility. I cannot think of how any entity, whether it’s a business or university, can operate without some long-term thinking in terms of its planning.”

COVID-19 has brought permanent changes to higher education as a whole. International education professionals across the country managed to survive the crisis by being flexible and imaginative in developing solutions to get students home safely and allow them to continue their education. Moving forward, campus leaders have the opportunity to make changes that potentially could transform higher education—and international education along with it—to be better than ever.

“Be prepared for shifts. [When circumstances change,] shift your strategies accordingly,” Friga says. “Implement flexibility. You’ve got to keep moving. You’ve got to keep prioritizing, and then you have to be ready to change [the plan] if needed.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

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NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.