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Higher Ed Groups in Survival Mode

July 29, 2009

Colleges around the country are laying off employees, freezing or cutting back travel and otherwise reining in their budgets in response to the down economy. And those cutbacks are having a direct and adverse effect on the many national associations that represent the institutions and their employees.

Thirty-eight of 45 organizations in the Washington Higher Education Secretariat, which includes the heads of many of Washington’s major higher education associations, responded to an Inside Higher Ed survey about changes in their financial status from June 1, 2008 to June 1, 2009.

Many reported that over the last year, they have curbed their spending, seen a drop in conference attendance, and scaled back their programs and staff. The extent of the damage varies from significant to small, but on the whole, the losses add up to a shrinking resource in postsecondary education.

'Mirror Image'

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has been making headlines after its president and CEO, Philip R. Day Jr., stepped down amid charges (unrelated to his duties at NASFAA) of illegally diverting funds to political campaigns.

But the controversy is just one of the association's many problems in a period of flux, in which student aid and loan programs are undergoing dramatic reform. Internally, the group has cut back on positions and operational expenses and issued severance packages. Without those adjustments, officials said it could have faced a projected deficit of $950,000 for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

Call it a "mirror" effect, Day said in an interview last month, before he resigned. "All of the challenges we are facing are simply a mirror image of what we are facing in the universities, whether two-year, four-year, public or private universities."

That reciprocal effect has meant an attendance dropoff at conferences held by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. About 1,300 individuals came to its Seattle annual meeting in January, down from nearly 1,700 at its Washington, D.C., event last year.

A spokeswoman, Debra Humphreys, said that difference is partly geographic, since Washington traditionally draws more attendees, but many members have also reduced travel expenses -- particularly those who rely on state funding. "Private institutions are quite different from public," she said. "I think publics started out at the beginning of the recession more under-resourced, so they're in a way digging a hole deeper than the one they're already in."

These public institutions include over-enrolled, under-funded community colleges across the nation. On the extreme end is California, whose 110 two-year institutions are reeling from $825 million in state budget cuts. The organization that represents them in Washington, the American Association of Community Colleges, saw a 22-percent drop in turnout at its annual conference, compared with last year’s. The event’s net revenue makes up about 3 percent of the group’s non-grant budget.

"We plan these conventions four and five years out, and there's no way we could have anticipated the economic downturn," said George Boggs, the president and CEO.

Representatives from the Florida university system may be inconspicuously absent from the conference scene, since the state has put a freeze on out-of-state travel for most of its state employees. It would not be unusual if other states followed suit, Day said.

Kevin Kruger, associate executive director for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, said that universities might forgo conferences even if they can afford to attend. "I think part of it is ... the 'AIG effect,' where they don't want to go [to conferences] if their colleagues can't afford to, even if they have the money," he said. He added that NASPA is working to cater to institutions that can't afford out-of-state travel by doing more programming in Florida, for example.

A Smaller Organization

The American Association of Community Colleges reported five vacant or frozen positions among its nearly 60-person staff over the last year, and stopped the hiring process for two slots earlier this year. "If I lose any more positions it will definitely mean a loss of services ... a lot of departments are only one or two people deep," Boggs said. "If I cut any further it will mean closing services."

Similarly, NASFAA has eliminated seven positions due to the economy, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education reported laying off five people in February for budgetary reasons, and the American Dental Education Association is 11 staff members smaller than it was last year, partly due to the economy. However, most organizations reported that their staff sizes have not changed significantly over the past year, aside from normal institutional turnover.

One reason could be that although association budgets are shrinking, the groups have more work cut out for them than ever before. "We are at a very interesting time," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

"Federal support to colleges and universities is at the highest it has been for a generation. The Higher [Education] Act has been a significant infusion. Congress is engaged in issues around Pell Grants and tax credits. In many ways it makes the work of ACE all the more important to campuses. Washington is a significant source of financial support when the states are struggling."

All the Small Things

In a crisis, it's the details that can be the most telling. At the NASFAA conference in San Antonio this month, planners spent weeks scrimping over the smallest frills. When faced with an economic crisis, as Day put it, "Do you offer cold water and cookies in the middle of the afternoon?"

Broad said each department was urged several months ago to examine its budget and year-end balance. "It's the little things here and there," she said, "whether refreshments, or travel, or holding meetings in the building" rather than at a restaurant or an outside venue.

Greg Roberts, president of the American College Personnel Association, said it has re-evaluated dishing out money for "face-to-face meetings that can otherwise be done on Skype [via video chat]."

And at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which is freezing salaries for the new fiscal year, members are no longer receiving a monthly newsletter on paper, said a spokesman, Tony Pals. It's been scrapped for an electronic version -- a move projected to save $25,000 annually.

But while organizations are cutting the little things across the board and not expanding their agendas substantially, most say that they are committed to retaining their educational, advocacy and developmental cores. "We are mindful of the environment higher education is in, and we are proceeding with caution,” Broad said.

Lending a Helping Hand

Of the 38 organizations that responded to Inside Higher Ed's survey, roughly one-third reported freezing or otherwise altering their dues structure in order to help their member colleges. Some are reducing their annual increases in an attempt to help struggling members.

The Council of Independent Colleges, for instance, has increased overall fees by 4 percent, as it does annually, but reduced them for colleges in need. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities is lowering its dues increase to 1.9 percent from the average 3.9 percent, according to Pals. And while the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers raised its fee by 5 percent for the 2009 fiscal cycle, President E. Lander Medlin said in an e-mail that it “will not raise next year’s dues whatsoever given the economic downturn.”

Despite drops in conference attendance, most organizations reported that membership levels remained steady from June 2008 to June 2009. The American Association of Community Colleges has seen only a slight drop in its membership numbers, but Boggs said that community colleges are right in the middle of the crisis and faced with "difficult choices about membership."

The Council of Graduate Schools, however, is seeing the reverse effect -- interest is booming. The number of members has grown slightly, and its most recent conference drew 653 attendees, its highest-ever turnout. That activity suggests that graduate schools are relying on the council for additional support, said Debra W. Stewart, the president.

"Graduate education, especially at the master's level, is expanding in the U.S.," she said in an e-mail. "Many new graduate schools turn to CGS for advice and guidance. Another factor to consider is that universities involved in graduate education need organizations like CGS most when times are tough."

Changing Role in Higher Ed

At this fiscally unstable moment, higher education organizations are trying to get a handle on just how their roles are changing or, perhaps, should change. A missed conference may not seem like more than a lost chance to rub elbows and enjoy a free lunch. But Jerry Sullivan, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that while times are tough, "This is also a time when [colleges] need to be creative and talk with other people about new strategies."

In the future, conferences could mean shorter, local programming instead of one nationwide meeting, said Kruger, of the personnel administrators’ group. The recession is forcing universities to re-evaluate their core structure, he said, and organizations must follow suit.

"The interesting question in the long term is, does all of this ... change the fundamental business models of associations?" he said. "You get on an airplane and go to a meeting.... If that changes, how do we evolve to a new model? We don't know if any of the changes we're seeing are going to be permanent. Then it's not a matter of waiting it out -- it's a matter of changing your business model."

 

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