The Role of SPOL in a Wavering Higher Education Budget Climate
As a professional in a field that serves higher education institutions daily, there are few things more evident to me than the wavering budget climate in higher education. I hear it so very often: “There simply isn’t budget for something like this.”, “The state is cutting our funding.”, or “Enrollment is down and tuition is frozen.” In these situations, software, and particularly, software guiding planning and accreditation are often not seen as priorities. It leaves me wondering, “Is THIS really the place to make cuts when the chips are down?”, “Don’t people realize the importance of these things?” The answers to these questions are a resounding and conflicting “No.” and “No.” How can I say that with any kind of authority? Because I’ve been there, done that, and feel your pain.
Let’s discuss the reasons why a budget downturn could be precisely the right time to make an investment in SPOL:
In a budget downturn, institutions are generally more scrutinized by state and federal entities, accreditors and even donors to prove what the money they have is being used for, and how it is supporting the goals of the institution directly. Such information (or lack thereof) can directly impact future allocations. Integrating planning and budget provides a clear look at what your funding is going to and what corresponding institutional priorities are being supported, allowing institutions to prove mission support by the budget.
Unfortunately, during budgeting crises, there can often be a loss of transparency in the budgeting process. When cuts need to be made on the fly, there is usually little communication about what is being cut and why, but rather, simply a sprint to the finish to get the money from wherever it can be taken. An underlying reason for this, is that there likely wasn’t a very clear and transparent process for allocating the funds in the first place. SPOL takes the guess work out of budgeting by offering a clear and transparent way for funds to be requested and approved or denied with full disclosure of the whys and why nots. The same holds true when adjustments need to be made, even mid-stream, to satisfy mandated cuts.
When budget cuts happen, especially mid-year, the practice is usually to hand down the cuts as a percentage across the board, rather than to prioritize certain needed expenditures and make cuts where they don’t hurt quite as much. With SPOL, budget items are prioritized from the very beginning. That way, no matter when a budget cut gets handed down, it is easy to see which areas can absorb the blow of a 25% cut, instead of having every entity on campus feel the pain of a 10% across the board cut. The items that are cut can even be forecasted into the next year and given priority there, so that nothing that is cut faces the possibility of being forgotten and permanently cut.
Often, we see budget cuts affecting personnel in the way of layoffs and furloughs, and by freezing positions currently posted to be filled. The use of a platform like SPOL can help curb the need for additional personnel expenses. Perhaps an IR or IE office would hire an analyst or manager to help collect and document information for continuous improvement and assessment. With SPOL, that staff position might not even be necessary. For less than the cost of a single FTE, SPOL can assist in the collection and organization of assessment and continuous improvement data.
The fact of the matter is, scraping by with less than adequate processes for budget planning and continuous improvement tracking can make a bad budget situation worse. When funds are low, neglecting these items to save a buck can cause a domino effect of catastrophic proportions such as:
- Further loss of funding due to lack of tracking and transparency of process; or
- Accreditation sanctions resulting from sloppy of non-existent continuous improvement documentation in the absence of a cut, furloughed, or tabled personnel position; or
- Additional sanctions for improper linkage of budget priorities to the institutional mission and lack of transparency of process.
These are just some examples. Doesn’t it then seem wise to mitigate those risks with a management tool that can actually improve your situation? For what it’s worth, my answer is yes. What’s yours?
Crystal M. Braden, MS