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Starting from Zero

July 12, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. -- An administrator who wants to change how a college does business in the “new normal” -- the post-recession world -- might as well start at square one.

That’s the outlook that administrators at Colorado Mountain College took two years ago when they decided to switch from incremental budgeting to a zero-based process, an experience they shared with other administrators here at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Administrators discussed how, over the last two years, they designed new tools to construct and analyze their budget, ran into stiff opposition from campus groups, and found several sources of waste in their multicampus institution.

“It has been a long and painful journey,” said Linda English, chief financial officer at Colorado Mountain. “But it was definitely worth it.”

Finding new ways of managing the administrative side of colleges and universities has been a dominant theme at NACUBO's annual meeting. In a talk to conference attendees, Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said that in the wake of the recession, with continuing cuts to state funding and slower rates of endowment growth, college and university administrators should look at the large management structures of institutions to find efficiencies.

Changing the budget process is one way of shaking things up. Colleges and universities typically craft their budgets based on the previous year's, with budget officials required only to justify the increases they request. Zero-based budgeting, on the other hand, requires campus officials to justify all expenditures, even ones that have been around for decades. It requires more time, upends the status quo and creates significant room for conflict. But the officials at Colorado Mountain College said that in the end, the process could help eliminate waste and inefficiency.

Incremental budget making is the dominant form of budgeting on college campuses. In a survey of chief financial officers conducted by Inside Higher Ed, 60 percent of the financial officers reported using an incremental model while 30 percent reported using a zero-based model. However, zero-based models are more common at community colleges, according to the survey, with 37.6 percent of officials saying their campus used a zero-based model while 47.4 percent said their campus used an incremental model. At the presentation here, only a handful of representatives said they used zero-based budgeting, though Colorado Mountain's presentation filled a room with several administrators who expressed interest in adopting the process, seeing it as a way to potentially save dollars in a tight economy.

The idea of creating a zero-based budget grew out of the college's participation in the Higher Learning Commission's Academic Quality improvement Program, an alternative path to accreditation under which institutions choose areas in which they want to improve in or change and get judged on how they carry them out. Through the program, administrators drafted a report proposing the switchover.

One reason that Colorado Mountain College adopted the process was its structure. The college, which has mostly awarded associate degrees but recently received authority to create five bachelor's degree programs, has three residential campuses and nine commuter locations spread out over the north-central Colorado Rockies. Each campus has a chief executive, and operations can be fairly decentralized. Budget officials worried that there were inequities and duplications across the institution that would be eliminated by starting the budget process from square one.

They decided to undertake the change over two years, with half the campuses changing to zero-based budgeting each year. They asked for volunteers the first year -- a move they don’t recommend others repeating. Because they started with volunteers, the campuses left for the second year were those where they faced the most resistance.

Administrators asked each campus's budget official to fill out a comprehensive spreadsheet for all general fund expenditures. As part of the process, each expenditure had to be tied to one of the college’s six strategic goals. “If you can’t tie it to the plan, then celebrate,” English said. “You don’t have to keep doing it.”

Not all members of the college community adopted that attitude. English said the budget team's members would often run into opposition when they raised questions about a budget line or told someone that an expenditure wasn’t justified. “You get people saying, ‘Why are you looking at that? Nobody’s asked about that before,’ ” she said. Whereas previous budget proposals might have been seen only by one or two administrators before being passed up the line, all expenditures were now open for the administration to see.

English said the best result from the process was the transparency it provided to budget officials and taxpayers. Administrators found duplications in subscriptions and dues to different organizations, multiple departments counting travel expenses for one faculty member, and significant inequality among campuses. One campus was granting extra leave time to all faculty members, because "that's how they always did it," English said. The process also helped identify best practices on the different campuses.

The new budgeting process didn’t end up cutting the college’s overall budget either year, since the college was also increasing expenditures to cope with significant enrollment increases.

This past year was the first time the whole campus underwent the process simultaneously. Administrators said they hoped to continue the zero-based process going forward, since abandoning it would just return the college to how things were done before. “The institution is changing rapidly,” said Steve Boyd, director of purchasing. “Something that you could justify last year, you might not be able to justify next year.”

 

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