November 30, 2018

Budgeting for Collaboration: Planning for Shared Student Services

Forecasting Trends

Institutions and students alike are facing financial pressure; for instance, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently calculated that state funding for higher education since 2008 is down 16 percent or $1,409 per student. Inside Higher Education’s 2018 CFO surveys revealed that only 63 percent are confident about their institution’s financial outlook in five years.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, between 1992 and 2012, the average amount owed by a typical student loan borrower who graduated with a bachelor’s degree more than doubled to a total of nearly $27,000. The College Board showed that published average tuition rates have risen dramatically in the last 30 years: 129 percent for private, non-profit four-year institutions, 213 percent for public four-year institutions, and 125 percent for public two-year institutions (all adjusted for inflation). (A pdf of this report is available here).

Taming the Complexity of Student Services

At the same time, colleges and universities are focusing on student success to improve key outcomes like retention, engagement, graduation rate, and job placement. Rightly so since the National Center for Education Statistics demonstrated that only 53.5 percent of students graduate in four years at non-profit public and private institutions (NCES Table 326.10).

One of the major challenges for student success is learning about and navigating the complex network of student support services on a campus — everything from counseling to tutoring to career advice to meeting the unique needs of international students; for instance, the Brookings Institution recently identified “navigating the college environment” as one of the top challenges to degree or certificate completion at community colleges.

The Need for Collaborative Budgeting and Operations

Financial pressures and a need for more holistic, integrated student services means that student service providers will be collaborating in new ways to share space, technology, data, and staff. This has a major impact on the budgeting for and operation of these services.

So, how can you create a flexible and comprehensive operating budget for a space that’s shared across dozens of providers? brightspot’s work with the University of Virginia’s student advising center answered this question by creating an integrated budgeting tool that forecasted space, technology, staffing, and operational costs for a place that brings together different units to share space, services, and data.

We presented this case study at NACUBO’S 2018 Planning and Budgeting Forum and we’ll provide an overview of this process to give you a sense of how you could develop your own shared budget.

Determining the Service Model for a Shared Advising Center

Catalyzed by a student satisfaction score of 2.6 out of four for pre-major advising on the Student Experience at a Research University (SERU) survey, UVA set out to provide more holistic support. Together, we created a vision for an Advising Center to integrate academic, personal, and career support to engage, empower, and guide students to success in a flexible place that blends study and support.

Developing the budget for shared student services starts with identifying what students need, and therefore, what services should be provided. With the portfolio of services determined — in this case, academic, personal, and career support — then, providers who’ll share space, staffing, and data can be identified.

From there, the right way to partner needs to be determined, typically along a spectrum from providing programming as a “visitor” to “embedding” the full operation in the shared center; in UVA’s case it made sense for units like career services to visit to provide workshops, to fully embed groups like the Center for Undergraduate Excellence, and then include services like writing help and tutoring as a kind of middle ground with more regular presence.

Developing the Collaborative Budget

With the services, providers, and modes of partnership determined, you can then develop a shared budget, using either each service (e.g., events and programs) or each category of service (e.g., skills workshops) as your unit of analysis. Then you add these up, coupled with whatever cross-cutting activities and associated costs are appropriate, such as utilities and tech support.

For UVA’s center, we started by defining the criteria; such as how many years out we’d plan as well as hours of operation, and we were careful to make assumptions like these easy to adjust so they’d ripple through the model dynamically. Then we estimated the variable demand week-by-week in term of low, medium, and high based on the academic calendar, and the established staffing levels — by service — for each category of demand; for example, during high peak periods we’d need X student workers and Y professional staff.

We then translated these staffing levels into salaries and hourly wages while also forecasting non-staff overhead costs such as utilities. With each of these steps as a tab in our excel model, the budget simply resulted by connecting them and playing “what if” scenarios on operating hours, staffing levels, salary bands, and the like until we had it in balance.

Moving Forward with the New Normal

After a certain tipping point, the new becomes the norm; “online shopping” just became “shopping.” The same thing is happening with student services. Collaboration will be the norm and we won’t even need to say “shared services” because there won’t be an alternative but to share and work together. To face this new reality and adapt to financial pressures while enabling student success, colleges and universities will need collaborative budgeting models to make it happen. Research needs, design services, identify providers, and determine how to partner to drive your own collaborative budgeting process.

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