As you step through the essential process of higher education budget planning, there are important principles that can guide your approach.

2 keys to budget success this season

As you step through the essential and integral process of budget planning, there are some important principles that can guide your approach

Key points:

  • Awareness is critical when diving into budget matters
  • Your staff can make or break budget initiatives

Budget season is a fraught time for leaders in higher education. College leaders must balance a multitude of intense and competing pressures as they craft their budgets. They are given the unenviable task of perpetually doing more with fewer resources. Drive enrollment, yet cut costs. Expand offerings, while trimming overhead. The project can seem insurmountable.

Compounding problems, COVID brought changes to funding in higher education, from drastic drops in enrollment to infusions of pandemic funding. As institutions seek to find equilibrium, they are wrestling with volatility, adding even more complexity to the many demands of shaping a college budget.

The project can devolve into reductionistic rationale based on disembodied spreadsheets. As you step through the essential and integral process of budget planning, there are two principles that can guide your approach.

Remember Your Mission.

Before you can do effective planning, you must have a clear picture of who you are as an institution. Take a wide view that considers an institution’s rich history, organizational culture, institutional values, and educational mission.

The most catastrophic budget missteps I have seen are ones that are divorced from an institution’s culture and values. You are not only planning for yourself or your Board of Trustees, but you are also planning for each and every one of your students, staff, alumni, and their families. In seeking to pacify contentious committees, leaders sometimes shortchange the very people they are called to serve.

Thoughtful reflection is the foundation upon which a successful budget is built. While you are planning for the next fiscal year, you are planning from your institution’s current assets and past experiences. Your financial priorities must be driven by your institutional values and long-term mission. Keeping your identity at the forefront allows you to be intentional and engaged. Strategic planning is where your history connects with your future. It allows you to connect your legacy to your mission. Your allocations should flow from your values.

In addition to identifying these personally, you must articulate them corporately. Do not assume that everyone is cognizant of the priorities of your institution. Discuss them as you plan and share them as you publish your budget.

Invest in Your Staff

Once you have a nuanced understanding of your institution’s identity and values, you are poised to analyze your opportunities—and obstacles. This is where plans can go awry. Do not let budget planning become abstract line items. Here is the key pivot: you must not think in terms of departments or initiatives, but the people who will lead them.

Your budgeting exercise must evaluate your strengths, diagnose challenges, and allocate resources on a macro level. However, you cannot solve all the problems or expand all the opportunities at your institution alone. The reality is that you may not be in the best vantage point to understand the complexity of problems or chart the best paths forward. That is why you need high-caliber leaders at every level of your institution. High-quality supervisors improve outcomes, increase employee retention, and innovate new opportunities. Leadership drives growth. You can have the most comprehensive plan for institutional growth, but with gaps in leadership–or worse, incompetent leaders–your plans are doomed to fail.

Your budget is populated with numbers, but those funds will be implemented by personnel. The best way to ensure your organization’s financial health in the next fiscal year and over the long-term is by making informed, strategic allocations in staffing. Budget planning must be undertaken with a sharp understanding of where you have strong leadership and where you can invest in staff. That includes creating additional positions, filling existing vacancies, and equipping staff through ongoing development and focused retention efforts. You must consider your current needs and long-term goals. Colleges neglect succession planning to their peril. If you wait until you have gaps in crucial roles, you are courting disaster.

I am not advocating indiscriminately dumping money into salaries or wantonly wasting funds. Thoughtful consideration fuels informed choices. Listen to leaders throughout your institution and equip them for the work they believe in. When you invest in your staff, they will devote themselves to your mission. That doesn’t merely enable solvency; it propels growth.

4 signs you’re ready for higher-ed career advancement

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool Media Contributors