Why You Need to Reassess Your Student Affairs Budget

Sometimes, the problems in our society — or in our divisions — seem insurmountable.

Recently, I wrote about how we can define our professional values. In that post, I discussed how departmental budgets are where mission statements are realized. It’s where the rubber meets the road, essentially. We need to fund those values — not just give them lip-service.

I believe that our problems are often more the result of an issue of allocation than a lack of resources. We can start solving food insecurity, homelessness, environmental degradation, and other crises if we committed the willpower to solving them.

Perhaps this is optimistic of me, but in our broader society, we often spend millions — even trillions — of dollars on things that could be better spent elsewhere. Even reallocating a fraction of the money to other causes could begin to make a difference.

What does it look like to commit to change?

It looks like building coalitions across campus, discussing and agreeing upon values, figuring out opportunities for partnerships, and being devoted to this work consistently — not just when it is easy. There will be pushback, disagreements, and hard conversations because change can be difficult. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen.

Part of the hard work of changing and setting values takes the shape of identifying where our money is going.

While our campus budgets are tight, we can work smarter by taking some tough love to our allocation of resources and making sure we’re spending our money wisely on the things that really matter to our department and the institution.

Phase 1: Audit your budget

Before we make any adjustments, we need to know where we are. Often, there may be expenditures that are more than we expect — or surprise us altogether.

These can be easy places to trim the hedges. Regardless, we need to quantify the resources we have and how we spend them. This can take time, but it is time well spent.

It may also require many hands and sets of eyes to be efficient and effective, so feel free to bring in some helpers here.

An important aspect of this stage is using technology to help gauge your current spend. This story from University Business shares how several universities were able to use modern spend analytics tools to save millions of dollars.

Phase 2: Figure out the return on investment

Spending on students is generally down across the board in higher education. The Hechinger Report notes that “The result is that the amount being spent, per student, is $5,896, the lowest level in the 25 years since it’s been tracked by SHEEO.”

While recently there has been a positive resurgence in investment in public institutions, it’s still not keeping pace with inflation or recouping the losses of the past decade.

State spending on higher education well below pre-recession levels

Even though nationally, state spending on higher education has been rising since 2013, 2017 levels are still $9 billion below 2008 levels when adjusted for inflation. Some states have really been suffering where others have been simply been stabilizing and still not spending more per student than they were a decade ago when adjusted for inflation.

What this means is that once you’ve figured out what you’re spending your money on, you need to figure out what the return on investment (ROI) is.

We all have limited resources, so we need to use them wisely. At times, we may want to have a high positive impact on a few students or a low, but positive, impact on many students. Or perhaps the things we think are working well aren’t terribly well-reviewed, so the investment may need to be altered. And you don’t want to wait until the year-end budget review to figure this out — you want to measure it as expediently as possible. Student engagement software can help you understand if you’re having the ROI that you’re hoping for — and can help you identify weak spots if you’re not. 

Inside Track has a great framework to evaluate ROI. They walk through five different perspectives and examples to figure out what investments may be working for us. Is it making money? Breaking even (eventually)? Sustaining itself? There is no one right answer here, just whatever you feel most comfortable pursuing.

Phase 3: Set key performance indicators

In order to evaluate your ROI effectively, you’ll need to set key performance indicators (KPIs).

Anything you’re spending money on needs a metric to make sure it is achieving its goals. This could mean that if you’re investing budget toward social media promotions, your KPI might be increasing your page’s following by a certain number, or expanding your total reach, or getting more interactions with your posts.

Set specific numbers to these — it’s okay to make them a reach because it gives you something to work towards. If you make your goals too easy to achieve, you’re likely to end up resting on your laurels.

Another example could be with program expenditures. Sometimes you need to consider the per-student cost of a program to see if it’s truly worth it. Set a benchmark to prevent yourself from overspending on an event, whether it is for 10 students or 100.

You may also want to have a certain number of students coming into your office each week. Put a number to that so you can track it and analyze change over time for anything you can do to keep working towards your goals (and, hopefully, achieving and raising them often).

Phase 4: Live out your values

The biggest existential question we need to answer when building our budgets is if it allows us to live out our department’s values and mission.

Think of it this way: Every dollar we spend on cool new swag items we might not really need is one less dollar you have to spend to invest in student workers, professional development, and student engagement initiatives. Interrogate your priorities and if your spending is supporting your true goals, or if they’re mostly thoughtless expenditures.

There is great importance in holding onto distinct values for recruiting and retaining students. They’ll identify with your organization and be more committed to it, even as they graduate. You’ll not just speak about your values, you’ll live them out and show that you mean it through your actions and how you spend your budget.

Phase 5: Assess!

To make sure our revamped budget is achieving our goals, we need to assess.

Whether your KPIs are increasing attendance at programs or garnering more positive feedback from students about the department, you need to measure the change over time to see what variables are affecting your metrics.

There are plenty of great tools out there to help you know if you’re investing your budget in the right places and in the right amounts. You may have made a miscalculation of how much something cost, you may see that a program was good but could have been great with more funding, or perhaps no one knew about what you were doing so you need to invest in some marketing. Whatever the data are telling you, listen, adjust, and continuously improve.

This isn’t a one and done thing. This sort of effort is ongoing and needs to continue to evolve and adapt with our students. We owe it to them — and to ourselves — to be good stewards of the public funding and private donations our universities get.

If we’re more intentional, scrutinizing, and conscious of our spending and allocate it to align more closely with our values, then everybody wins.

Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations! Learn how we can help get your students involved.

Check I'm Here is now Presence. Learn more about this change in our blog post here.