Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Best Practice in the Use of Federal Stimulus Funds in Institutions of Higher Education: Best Practices Achieve Balance in Policy, Procedure, and the Relationships of Key Players

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Best Practice in the Use of Federal Stimulus Funds in Institutions of Higher Education: Best Practices Achieve Balance in Policy, Procedure, and the Relationships of Key Players

Article excerpt

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created two pools of money potentially available to public higher education: $39 billion allocated as part of a state fiscal relief fund for K-12 and higher education and $6 billion allocated for higher education renovation, modernization, technology upgrades, and energy efficiency improvements as part of the "21st century classrooms" provision of that act. What are the emerging best practices to make effective use of those funds?

The funds available were one-time or short-term investments at best. It is important to note that these funds were allocated to states and not to higher education institutions. As a result, choices by state officials about how to use them often preempted institutional or system-level choices. Any discussion about best practices in higher education regarding the use of stimulus funding must consider these restrictions. It is also important to note that not all institutions or systems found their allocation decisions significantly constrained.

A designation of best practice is always founded on assumptions--sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit--about the values to be served. There are many higher education values deserving of our attention: student learning, access, affordability, graduation/completion rates, stewardship of place, institutional viability, and so on.

In addition, best practice is necessarily a subset of general practice. A survey administered by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in the summer of 2009 queried its members (i.e., publicly funded state institutions) about their plans for spending federal stimulus funds. The survey asked several detailed questions about potential uses of the two categories of funding and, in so doing, helped to define the parameters of general planning practice.

It was unsurprising to find that a number of states either cut deals with higher education institutions or simply mandated that any institution accepting federal stimulus dollars limit or forgo tuition and fee increases. In many cases, these revenue limitations were paired with the use of stimulus funds to replace (but not add to) state funding. It was an easy political decision that temporarily addressed the long-term issue of affordability--an issue that has been exacerbated by states' long-term disinvestment in higher education.

In general, respondents rank avoidance of tuition and fee increases and layoffs of tenured faculty, non-tenured full-time faculty, and staff or part-time faculty as their highest priorities for the use of stimulus funding. Lesser priorities include starting up new high-demand academic programs, offering faculty development opportunities for high-demand courses, and purchasing durable equipment. Many respondents recognize that avoiding layoffs now only buys time and that they may well be inevitable once the stimulus dollars are exhausted. Understanding that this funding is short term, some institutions are limiting themselves to one-time expenses or at least choosing not to spend the money on ongoing operating expenses.

The funding for creating 21st century classrooms is overwhelmingly slated for deferred maintenance and planned renovation activities. Few respondents are planning for new academic or student service facilities, and none report plans for new administrative facilities. Several respondents indicate that deferred maintenance and renovation activities will be centered on energy efficiency and other green efforts.

In the event that budget cuts are still required, respondents are considering a variety of operations and revenue actions. These actions, shown in figure 1, are listed from most to least likely.

In addition, some institutions are considering merging departments and colleges and sharing programs with sister institutions. One institution reports that it will increase its assessment efforts to review graduation efficiency, while others are considering reducing elective courses and the frequency of course offerings. …

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