I have had the opportunity to work within budgetary constraints, allocating resources, through several experiences, both in higher education and in my previous work in nonprofit management. I also budget for my family, but this experience is usually not seen as the same. However, I find being fiscally responsible as a family to be similar to being fiscally responsible as a higher education professional. Both a family and a department have funding priorities. Both have a total amount of funds to work with. Both use funding as a way of planning the future, with the focus on what can be accomplished within the funding constraints. The main differences to my mind are the size of the total budget and the various needs to consider. Budgeting for a family may have fewer needs and concerns than budgeting for a department within an institution, but the principles are the same.
This year, I worked on the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Advisory Board to learn and help plan their budget for next year. CAPS is a student fee funded organization, with the vast majority of its monies coming from a flexible fee charged to each student each term. The department is able to estimate its total funding by gathering data about the number of students expected to enroll for the next school year each term and multiplying that by their current fee. Each year, because they are student fee funded, they must propose their budget to a board of students, called the Student Incidental Fee Committee (SIFC). This committee requires the department to speak on several topics each year based on performance and discussion from the previous year, including improvement of programs, expansion of services, and articulation of needs. If the SIFC approves the budget, it moves on to the Associated Students of Oregon State University (ASOSU), the elected student government, for final approval.
This budget is a multi-million dollar budget, which at first was quite intimidating. My household budget certainly does not even begin to run that high, and allocating these funds felt like a huge responsibility, since they were derived from students in order to serve students. Under the guidance of the Director of CAPS, the advisory board was charged with understanding the departmental functions, services, and goals; understanding the budget as it was last year; and identifying several needs for the future that would be expressed in decision packages to the SIFC. These decision packages were changes that the Advisory Board hoped to make to the previous year’s budget, including funding another classified employee, funding after-hours emergency mental health services, and funding more student employees to help with marketing and health promotion. Because of an increase in enrollment, CAPS was able to propose all of these changes without raising the fee each individual student pays. SIFC also asked the board to provide proposed budgets where the fee was lowered without the decision packages. The process that a student fee funded department must go through each year for budget season is extensive, because it is important that students know where the money they spend is going.
In addition to working with the CAPS Advisory Board, I was also able to look at and evaluate the budget for the Student Enrichment Program (SEP) at Western Oregon University, where I am currently interning. SEP is a very different department, with none of their funding coming directly from students. The department serves 400 low-income, first-generation students and/or students with disabilities. 250 of those students are funded by the federal government through the TRiO grant funding program, and 150 of those students are funded by general funds from the institution. Because of these federal dollars involved, SEP follows strict guidelines for data collection, resource allocation, and reporting. My supervisor at SEP, Marshall Guthrie, explained to me that he looks at budgeting as planning for the future, with the goal of using the existing resources to do more. However, sometimes planning for the future is a bit out of SEP’s control, especially where the federal dollars are concerned. This year, because of sequestration cuts, the SEP is expected to receive a 5% cut in its federal funding. Although this doesn’t seem like much, the budget at SEP is not large and 5% would certainly prevent them from providing some of the services and programs they currently provide. They are hoping that the institution will cover this shortfall this year, with federal dollars making up the difference in subsequent years. The extra tricky thing about the funding for SEP is that they must reapply for their federal grant every five years, and they do not necessarily know whether or not they will be refunded and whether they will keep their jobs. In order to increase their chances of being refunded, they must show that they are meeting their goals for their students, including showing high retention rates, graduation rates, and academic standing for the students they serve. Therefore, the SEP’s funds are tied much more directly to the performance of the department. This correlation may continue to be made as states across the country tie their funding to public institutions to completion rates, instead of access rates.
After examining these two very different budgets, I feel ready to handle various types of institutional budgets, but I know it is something about which I still have quite a bit to learn. I will continue to learn in my Budget and Finance class this spring term. One thing common to budgets at both SEP and CAPS is that the vast majority of funding goes to personnel, to salaries and benefits, often 80% or higher of the budgets’ total funds. These are things that, as a department head, I would do my best not to cut when times were tight, because cutting here means that people lose their jobs or take furloughs. And if the department is working well with the staffing levels it has, or could use more staff, cutting here is the last resort. There are things, though, that can be cut for several years in a crunch without huge consequence, as long as they are returned to the department eventually, including professional development funds, technology upgrades, and new programs. After a funding crisis is averted, however, these things must be returned to the budget so that team morale remains high and the department shows that it values learning and growth. Where you put your money shows who you want to be.