The pandemic caused a drastic shift in the way many academic budgets and resources are allocated. Read on for ten ways academic leaders can ensure budget decisions stay aligned with their academic mission.
Prior to the pandemic, academic leaders were finishing a fall semester and doing their best to manage faculty, deliver relevant curriculum, support student success and report learning outcomes.
When time and resources could be found academic leaders did what they could to address the ever-present opportunities that come with leading academic teams in the new millennium: trying to show students that education is worth the investment, creating environments to make diverse members of their faculty and student communities feel welcome and supported, and figuring out how to do more and more with less and less.
Then COVID happened and institutions went into crisis-mode. Academic leaders spent months figuring out how to keep students both safe and engaged in learning and how to keep faculty, staff and administrators safe and supported.
Today academic leaders must continue to lead their institutions in pursuit of their academic missions but with an understanding that the economic fallout over the past two years has resulted in a new financial reality at many institutions. That new financial reality has likely already impacted the way budgets are created, resources are allocated, and decisions are made at your institution.
With declines like those reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education where schools have seen upwards of 14% aggregated declines in revenues in 2020 and 2021 (Paul N. Friga) and other reports like Sam Pollack’s stating that “The coronavirus pandemic created the most severe liquidity crisis higher education has faced since the global financial crisis,” emergency measures were needed.
Up until COVID academic leaders typically had quite a bit of discretion in how to allocate budgeted resources. Incremental budgeting, which depends on fairly predictable costs and revenues based on the previous year’s data, was the norm at most institutions. The ease of management and the advantage of sharing benefits and risks across the institution outweighed one of the main shortcomings of incremental budgeting, understanding where costs were coming from and how they were connected to revenue.
After the 2008 recession, some schools adopted activity-based budgeting, performance-based budgeting or responsibility center budgeting (RCB), to try to better understand costs and value creation but even these budgets, once they were adopted, provided academic leaders autonomy in allocating resources.
Today, with huge revenue shortfalls and increased costs due to COVID, many institutions have had to replace their standard budgetary models and processes. 43 percent of CFO’s said they needed to streamline their overall budgeting processes to react more quickly and efficiently.
Many schools have moved to a wholly centralized budgeting process where the executive team determines budgets, while trying to manage cash and project revenues. Zero Based Budgeting which essentially means every expense is evaluated every year may be used to prioritize expenditures.
Data models with real data and models with created data will be used to plan for various scenarios, especially for revenue projections. College enrollments declined 2.5 percent in fall of 2020, about 400,000 students (College Clearning House) in 2020 but no one know for sure what will happen in the fall of 2021.
Cash management will require a thorough assessment of available funds, both restricted and unrestricted and an assessment of whether there is enough cash to remain liquid.
So while your executive leadership and finance teams help to keep your institution soluble despite greater than 10% declines in revenues what can you do to make sure the academic mission is not compromised.
1. Commit to Your Mission.
Decide what allocations are absolutely critical to achieving your mission and find ways to fund those;
2. Be Informed.
Understand what changes your institution is making to budgeting processes and why they have adopted the methods, models and processes they have chosen;
3. Join the Conversation.
As an academic leader you may know about value drivers, funds, or other sources of revenue that could be important in keeping your institution solvent;
4. Think Long(er) Term.
Add insights that may help decision-makers think about the long(er) term strategic impact of their decisions.
5. Make a Plan to Communicate With Your Team.
Share the reasons for budgeting changes and bring the data that supports the need for the changes.
6. Offer Hope.
Every enterprise goes through difficult times. Focus on how these challenges can make your institution better in the future.
7. Look for Ways You Can Save Resources Now.
Are there any places where you know work is being done in a way that is redundant or inefficient? Are there manual processes you could automate?
8. Imagine Your Institution in 3 Years.
What kinds of programs do you want to be offing? How can you serve students, faculty, staff and administrators better in the future?
9. Educate Yourself on Trends.
Things are changing fast but much of what is happening in higher education has been coming for a long time. ED, accreditors and pundits are all talking about ROI and skills, what does that mean for your institution?
10. Be a Bridge Builder.
Remember that no one wants to have to make painful cuts to budgets; the goal is to make sure that even with limited resources that resources are allocated in a way that academic missions are supported and there is a strong likelihood of financial sustainability.
*This post was originally shared March 5, 2021.
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