Financial Planning: Strategies and Lessons Learned: Financial Planning Is More Important Than Ever as Colleges and Universities Face Serious If Not Unprecedented Financial Challenges

Article excerpt

Introduction

As the United States and U.S. higher education look ahead to a relatively austere future, the financial planning function within higher education institutions will become increasingly critical. Our purpose in this article is to describe this multifaceted function and to distill lessons learned from decades of practice as to how best to execute it. Although our experience is broader, our perspective is colored by the many years we have spent engaged in financial planning at the University of Utah, a public research university. We trust that our reflections can be usefully generalized, given that the issues we discuss are not necessarily unique to that type of institution.

We start by noting several environmental trends, both external and internal, that have implications for higher education financial planning in the future. We then provide a brief overview of the role of financial planning within a typical university; that is, the many ways in which financial planning can add value in the decision-making process. We next offer suggestions on how to make financial planning work well, describe how organizational context influences financial planning, and discuss how the focus of financial planning may need to change in the future. We have chosen to focus on organizational dynamics regarding financial planning rather than on analytic models or other more technical issues.

Environmental Factors Influencing Financial Planning

External trends. Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California and former chair of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, often commented that the most significant changes in higher education have resulted from external forces (pers. comm.). Although there are many factors now affecting financial planning in higher education, we have chosen here to focus briefly on only five since most readers will be generally familiar with this topic.

First is the powerful force of shifting demographics. In earlier years, enrollment growth was, for the most part, the dominant demographic factor in financial planning. More recently (and especially looking to the future), the variability by state in the 18-year-old population and the low participation and completion rates of rapidly growing but underrepresented groups such as Hispanics loom large in thinking about enrollment and tuition, institutionally based financial aid, and net tuition revenue. Unless there are changes in the high school completion rates and college preparedness levels of underrepresented groups, the validity of the enrollment and financial planning assumptions commonly used in the past will be in some jeopardy.

Second, underlying philosophical assumptions about higher education have changed considerably during our professional careers and have greatly influenced financial planning. The tenants of "new public management" most notably the focus on output measures, have increasingly forced us to think about the connections among revenues, expenditures, and outcomes. We will comment more on this issue in the final section of the article.

Third is the shift in perception from higher education as a public good to higher education as a private good. This shift has been accompanied by a significant change in who pays for higher education (from government to students and their families), the continuing rise of tuition as a critical source of marginal revenue growth, and the growth of financial aid as an expenditure. As measured in constant dollars, state and local appropriations per $1.00 in tuition have declined from $2.65 in 1991 to $1.27 in 2006 (Wellman 2008). "High tuition/high aid" has become an increasingly dominant philosophy that now challenges financial planners to assess the elasticity of rising tuition levels, project net tuition income, and focus on the strategic use of scholarships.

Fourth are other significant changes in the relative importance of various revenue streams. …