Knowledge and Involvement of Student Affairs Officers in Financial Decision-Making: A Challenge for the Profession

Article excerpt

To serve their campuses well, senior level student affairs administrators need to be involved as full partners in institutional deasion-making. To do that effectively requires a variety of skills, including an understanding of higher education finance. The role of student affairs personnel in institutional financial decision-making has not been studied. Looking at variables including involvement and knowledge, the authors surveyed senior student affairs leaders to identify the factors that facilitate participation in the financial deasion-making process.

In their classic article, French and Raven (1959) discussed the importance of expertise and concluded that special knowledge carried with it influence and power. Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991), supporting the position of French and Raven, \vrote that expertise in the form of "knowledge of the business" (p. 49) is a necessary trait of leaders. Student affairs educators, committed as they are to student learning and development, may lack the knowledge or expertise to successfully advocate for the fiscal resources needed to do their work (Kuh & Nuss, 1990; McClelkn & Barr, 2000; Schuh, 2000). Understanding how institutional fiscal officers do their work becomes an important challenge for those senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) who recognize that their involvement as informed participants in campus financing discussions helps them gain support for their programs while, as French and Raven (1959) and others (Barr & Desler, 2000; Reisser & Roper, 1999; Sandeen, 1991) suggest, enhancing their ability to influence institutional decisions, thereby increasing their value to their campuses.

Colleges and universities usually are managed using a conservative fiscal approach that minimizes debt. Real costs, however, can occur when opportunities are missed. For example, failure to add housing units or to remodel aging ones could, particularly in a competitive student recruitment market, result in decreased enrollments, high attrition, and reduced revenue. Among the reasons for going into debt is to avoid the costs that can occur if opportunities are lost. Campuses also assume debt in order to fund capital projects that are supportive of educational objectives (Forrester, 1988). However, debt is a long-term financial commitment, a fixed cost that may impact the resources available to fund other priorities (Hornfischer, 1997; McClellan & Barr, 2000). If only for that reason, SSAOs need to be involved when institutional decisions related to student affairs are made.

If the use of debt is central to the financial management of campuses and because senior student affairs professionals are to provide broad based campus leadership, it is important to know how involved senior leaders are in the decision-making process leading to the issuance of debt to finance student-use facilities. There are many debt instruments; for our study we selected bonds because they are widely used. In 2001, institutions of higher education issued a record $18.6 billion in tax-exempt bonds (Blumenstyk, 2002; Fisher, 2002) suggesting that bonds are an accepted and commonly used debt financing tool. Some portion of that debt was issued to finance facilities used to support student life programming and, as a result, some of that debt became a fixed cost assumed by student affairs programs.

The research problem investigated here focuses on identifying factors that determine the extent to which SSAOs are prepared for and involved in the institutional decision making process as it concerns student affairs capital projects. The main research questions developed to address the problem of preparation and involvement were these: (a) How involved are SSAOs in the discussions leading to decisions about financing new student affairs projects on their campuses; (b) to what extent are they knowledgeable about higher education finance; and, (c) what, if any, training have SSAOs received that would prepare them for participation in discussions about the financing of student affairs capital projects? …