How many of you in Higher Education are working on your FY16 budgets right now? ūüôā Well for us, budget season is in full swing!

This year, I’m thinking about budgets a bit differently in my new leadership role¬†in the division, beyond my time as a student union director. Recently, I had the opportunity to share what I had learned about fiscal management thus far¬†in Dr. Beth Moriarty‘s student affairs graduate class at Bridgewater State University (slides below). While I have had progressive budgeting experience throughout my career, working more closely with our university’s finance office and their staff this year has given me a better appreciation and understanding about budget from a macro level… one that I wish I had as a Director and Assistant/Associate Director.

The questions and conversations that took place in person and online inspired me to broadly share this content.¬†Below is some¬†advice on what I believe you need to understand in order to become how a strong steward of your college/university finances, regardless of your role in higher education administration… breaking down a bit further some of the “Unwritten Rules of Student Affairs” that Dr. Ann Marie Klotz and I shared in January (2015).

1. Understand How Your Institution Receives and Allocates Their Funding
With the depth and breath of how higher education receive funding, its important to understand your specific institution’s situation (Barr and McClellan, 2011). As a public school, you will get more state and local funding than a private school that relies heavily on tuition and fees (although this trend is shifting). Understand how “tuition dependent” you are and how all your resources are spent. With a variety of funding sources (tuition/fees, state/local, federal, fundraising, etc.), know exactly what your institution is entitled to and the percentage it allocates to¬†its various divisions. Once you know how your institution’s budget is built, ask questions specifically about your department’s allocation in relation to¬†how your division is allocated. It may be a mix of tuition, fees, state allocation, etc., with possible restrictions on how you may spend those dollars.

Questions to ask yourself:
1. Does my institution receive state and/or local aid? If yes, what is the percentage of the total budget?
2. Are there restrictions on how we spend our allocation?

2. Understand How Organizational Culture Influences Resource Allocation Decisions
You may have noticed that even with some of your best efforts collecting data, funding for important initiatives may still come up short during each budget cycle. In order to put you and your area in the best position to acquire an increase to your budget each year, a clear understanding of your organizational culture and strategic actions are required. Bolman and Deal (2011) ruminated on four distinct organizational frames to provide a better understanding of your institution’s culture: structural, human resources, political, and symbolic (overview below):

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 10.32.12 AM

Advocating for more resources begins with a clear understanding which frame(s) your institution, division, budget manager, vice president, and supervisor operate in and how you would need to modify your approach in asking for certain resources. Additionally, you need to understand what frame(s) you operate in most often and how people perceive you in the organization. By gaining this knowledge and applying this understanding, you will build key relationships that should foster mutual understanding and respect.  If you are not armed with this knowledge or understanding, no amount of good data will help you influence the budget allocation process.

Questions to ask yourself:
1. What frame do you find yourself working from most often?
2. What frame does your supervisor work from most often?
3. How would you approach the budget cycle process from each of the different frame’s perspective?

3. Understand Different Budgeting Models
While there are many budget models used in Higher Education, the three that I have worked with more often than not include:

  • Incremental Budgeting: At various institutions, this top-down approach allocates funds to various departments from the central administration, with very little changes from year to year. Budgets in this model are often “level funded” each year unless a strong case is made for the addition of resources.
  • Zero Based Budgeting: At various institutions, this grass-roots/ground-up approach requires goals and objectives for each line item in the budget. This process is a much slower one, but allows for a more in-depth analyzation of expenditures and their true levels of importance.
  • Responsibility Centered Budgeting: At various institutions, this income based approach requires specific units to build its budget based on the revenue it brings in (e.g. Residence Life, Student Unions, Athletics, etc.). In this model, often called ‘auxiliaries’ at some institutions, unit leadership make the final call on expenditures. However, there are often budgets that seem “responsibility centered”, but still has influence on its spending from executive leadership. In these cases, or even hybrid approaches, the model is not truly “responsibility centered.”

Your department may or may not use one of these models, but its important to understand them for a macro view on finance management (Barr and McClellan, 2011). Additionally, as you get into the micro level details of building budgets for programs, events, services, or entire departments, here are some things to consider:

  • When building any type of budget, take the amount that is allocated to you and remove 10% for contingency. This allows for a more focused approach to the other 90% you have to spend and builds in a cushion for unexpected expenses.
  • If you need to spread the word about the event or service you are planning, build in at least 10% for social media marketing purposes. These funds should drive your Facebook and Twitter ad campaigns since the organic reach of these pages are essentially non-existent.
  • When you build Student Employment budgets, use this formula to help you ascertain your costs:

Student Employment Budgeting Formula

Take your total allocation (e.g. $10,000) and divide it by your department’s hourly rate (e.g. $10/hr) which will yield your total number of hours for the semester (e.g. 1000 hrs). Once you have that number, divide it by the number of weeks you intend students to work during your term (e.g. 15) and that will give you the total number of hours per week your payroll can handle (e.g. 66 hours). Once you divide that number by the number of student employees you have (e.g. 6 student employees), you’ll have the average number of hours each of your students may work (e.g. 11) per week. Certainly, if you want to hire students for project based work, such as in graphic design or video production, you may want to limit hours per project to stay within your budget.

Questions to ask yourself:
1. What type of budgeting model does our organization/department use?
2. How would I manage a budget allocation if given the opportunity?

Final Thoughts on Financial Management (for now)… ūüôā¬†

  • Spend¬†Down¬†Your¬†Allocation: If your budget does not roll over every year, its important to spend down your allocation as close to zero as possible (think “Price is Right” rules,¬†closest without going over). If your budget can roll to the next fiscal year, spend what you planned to and then roll over remaining funds with an intended plan. This shows those in leadership that while you did not spend your entire allocation, you have given thought to how those funds¬†will be¬†spent.
  • Going Over Budget May Help You Long Term: Sometimes, the only way to show a clear need is to go over your allocation. Now, of course, I am not suggesting, recommending, or even condoning intentionally overspending. However, begging for forgiveness for going into the red may help raise important awareness to the need in your area. I only went over budget¬†one year in my tenure as¬†Director of the Campus Center and it helped add new money to my budget the following fiscal year. Did I get spoken to about it? Yes, of course. Did it eventually add to more resources in my area. Absolutely. Again, tread lightly here ūüôā
  • Spend Time Each Month Reviewing Financial Reports: Ensure that debits and credits have been properly allocated to your budgets. Human error often causes misallocations of charges between different departments that could cause central financial offices to look at your budget with unnecessary concerns. Besides, you want to know, more often than not, how your program/department/division’s budgets look on a regular basis.
  • Ask for Additions to Your Allocation Every Year: Even during downturns, cuts, and economic challenges, putting your highest priority requests in to your supervisor during each budget cycle showcases your thoughtfulness about improving the program/department/division and provides leadership with a better understanding of what you want/need. If/when more resources become available, your leadership will know where it could go.
  • Ask For Budgetary Responsibilities Early in Your Career:¬†Whether its in your campus employment or through volunteer opportunities off campus in associations or other organizations, make it clear to your supervisor, chair, etc. that you want the opportunity to manage budgets. If you want to move up in the organization and beyond, you must show progressive experience of successfully managing finances. The earlier you ask and are granted opportunities, the greater your chances are of building this important skill.

Since I’ve moved up into division leadership, I have developed a greater appreciation for the intricacies of resource allocation. As a profession, we must continue to be excellent stewards of institutional resources in order to better position ourselves to enhance the cocurricular¬†experience.

What’s your best financial management advice for those in student affairs? What can we be doing better? Is there a clear¬†delineation of fiscal management styles between the private and public sectors of higher education?


Barr, M., & McClellan, G. (2011). Budgets and financial management in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2011). Reframing organizations:Artistry, choice and leadership (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

One Comment

  • It was interesting to see you pull in Bolman and Deal (2011) since I use that text as a reference guide myself after reading it for my stuctural organizations course. I can’t say I thought of using that as means to address budget concerns, but it makes complete sense. It’s funny because it goes back to what I tell my students all the time, make sure you ask for what you need in a way that makes sense to the person you are speaking with and the organization you are working within. But along those same lines if that framework doesn’t work sometimes you have to be “bad” to be “good” i.e. spend over the allocated amount. It’s a very delicate balance and one that takes time to truly understand. Thanks for explaining everything on such a basic level!

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