The 2012 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College & University Business Officers
The 2012 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College & University Business Officers
The economic downturn that began in fall 2008 continues to cast a long shadow over American higher education. Some institutions have struggled, others have gotten by with modest difficulty, and some, perhaps surprisingly, have experienced little or no financial or programmatic impacts from the downturn that has affected a good portion of the nation’s economy and much of higher education. ¶The 2012 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Business Officers, the second in the series that was launched in 2011, addresses critical challenges that confront senior business and financial officers across all sectors of American higher education. The key issues, summarized below and discussed in detail in this report, address an array of pressing challenges that confront financial officers and their institutions across all sectors and segments:
- What’s your current assessment of the financial health of your institution? How have things changed in the past two years? What are your expectations for the future?
- How would you characterize your campus’s experience with budgets for the academic core and for non-academic programs and services since 2008?
- What issues have captured the most time and attention of senior officials over the past five years? Which issues have received less attention?
- Are the traditional business models for key sectors of American higher education still viable?
- What’s the status of “second round” strategies at your campus? What strategies are under discussion, not discussed but should be, or appropriately “off the table” as your campus looks at the financial and programmatic challenges ahead?
- What suggestions have CFOs and senior business officers offered to reduce costs, leverage resources, and increase productivity? How have other senior campus officials responded to those suggestions?
The survey data offer new insights about priorities during a period of continuing financial challenges for many colleges and universities – and when compared with the data from Inside Higher Ed’s other recent surveys of provosts and presidents, the CFO survey reveals points of consensus and dissonance between senior campus officials. The Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university business officers was conducted in May and June 2012.
An e-mail invitation with a hotlink to an online questionnaire was first sent on May 30 to the chief business and financial officers at 2,454 public, private nonprofit, and for-profit colleges and universities across the United States that enroll 500 or more students. Discounting the non-deliverable e-mails, the actual survey sample included some 2,306 two- and four-year institutions. A total of 502 campus and system chief business or financial officers completed the survey by June 22. As less than a dozen business officers from both private nonprofit two-year colleges and for-profit colleges completed the survey, the data for these groups are not presented in this report, although the data are provided in the accompanying data tables. Additional information about the survey methodology is presented in Appendix A.
Give It a Grade: Rating the Financial Health of Colleges and Universities
As was the case in 2011, financial officers at a majority of the nation’s colleges and universities seem surprisingly upbeat in their assessments about the financial health of their campuses. Despite the economic downturn that began in fall 2008 and the accompanying public lament from senior campus officials across sectors about the impact of the downturn on their institutions and on American higher education over the past four years, fully half (49.2 percent) of the 2012 survey participants view their college or university to be in good financial health (compared to 52.0 percent in 2011) while more than a sixth (17.1 percent) report that their college or university is in excellent financial health, the same proportion as in 2011 (Figure 1).
In aggregate, the business officers at public colleges and universities are slightly (and perhaps surprisingly) more likely to report their institution to be in good or excellent financial health than are their counterparts at private nonprofit institutions (67.9 percent for public institutions vs. 64.0 percent for private nonprofits). As was the case in 2011, the financial officers in community colleges and private universities appear more upbeat about the financial health of their institutions than are their counterparts in other sectors (Figure 1). Almost three fourths of the financial officers in both private universities (72.8 percent) and community colleges (72.3 percent) report that their institutions are in “good” or “excellent” financial condition, compared to roughly two-thirds of public universities and public and private master’s institutions, and about two-fifths in other sectors.
Rating the Financial Health of Colleges and Universities
(percentage of business officers reporting "good or "excellent")
While CFOs in several segments appear more sanguine about the financial health of their institutions than some of their peers are, CFOs generally seem less positive about the financial circumstances of their campuses this year than last. As shown in Figure 2, the overall percentage of chief financial and business who report their campuses to be in “good” or “excellent” financial health dropped slightly from 69.2 percent in May 2011 to 66.3 percent in May 2012. More striking are the declines in some individual segments:
- a drop from 67.9 to 62.2 percent reporting “good/excellent” among public universities.
- a plunge from 75.8 to 57.7 percent among public baccalaureate colleges.
- a fall from 82.1 to 72.3 percent for community colleges.
- a decline from 84.4 percent to 72.3 percent for private universities.
- a drop from 84.4 to 72.8 percent for private universities.
Concurrently, the percentage of public master’s institutions reporting good/excellent financial health increased dramatically this past year, from 55.4 percent in 2011 to 68.7 percent in 2012. Private master’s institutions and private baccalaureate institutions also registered gains from 2011 to 2012.
Assessing the Past, Anticipating the Future
Table 2 reveals that many financial officers believe that the financial health of their institutions has improved in recent years. In aggregate, almost two-fifths (37.3 percent) of the survey participants report that the financial health of their campus is “much better” now (in May 2012) compared to May 2008 (several months before the nation’s financial markets imploded), while a seventh (13.6 percent) also report “much better” financial health compared to just a year ago.
In contrast, fully a sixth (16.4 percent) of the business officers who participated in the 2012 survey report that the financial health of their campus is much worse now than in May 2008, while just 5 percent report worse financial circumstances in May 2012 vs. May 2011.
The survey data also reveal that business officers at private nonprofit institutions believe that their institutions are doing better – that their campuses are in better financial health than their peers in the public sector. As they look back to both 2008 and 2011, the financial officers at private institutions are also less likely to report that their institutions are doing much worse compared to their public sector peers. These differences are not surprising given the continuing reductions in state support that have played havoc with the budgets and finances of public institutions in many states.
Looking forward, an eighth (12 percent) of the 2012 survey participants expect the financial health of their institution to be much better next spring (in May 2013), while almost a third (29.9 percent) anticipate circumstances to be much better by May 2015. As above, business officers at private colleges and universities are more optimistic about the financial prospects for their campuses than their counterparts in public institutions (Table 3).
A small but striking proportion of CFOs at public master's institutions (16.0 percent) and community colleges (17.6 percent) anticipate that the financial health of their campuses will be much worse by 2015 than it is in 2012. Translating the percentages, the actual numbers of CFOs anticipating dire financial circumstances by 2015 are small: seven of the 50 public master's survey participants, and 27 CFOs among the 117 from community colleges who completed the survey. Still, these numbers suggest that some financial officers are not confident about the prospects for "better days" for their institutions.
Budgets: The Inside Story
Although the general campus presentation and resulting public perception about money and budgets over the past four years suggest that most (if not all) colleges and universities have been severely affected by the continuing economic downturn, the survey data reveal a very different profile of the financial fortunes of American postsecondary institutions since fall 2008. As shown in Figure 3, almost three-fifths (59.3 percent) of the business officers participating in the 2012 survey report either flat (21.2) or rising (38.1) budgets for core academic programs over the past four years; in contrast, a fifth (20.8 percent) report flat budgets following continuing cuts, while another fifth report either modest (15.2 percent) or severe (4.8 percent) budget cuts that continue to affect core academic programs.
Almost three-fifths of the survey participants also report either rising (27.8 percent) or generally flat (20.8 percent) budgets for non-academic programs and services over the past four years (Figure 3). Another fifth (21.8 percent) describe their campus as now recovering from continuing cuts with either flat funding or modest increases in the budgets for non-academic programs and services. Fully a sixth (16.4 percent) report modest but continuing cuts while an eighth (12.4 percent) report significant and continuing cuts in the funding for non-academic portions of the campus budget.
Private nonprofit institutions apparently fared better than their public sector counterparts over the past four years. As seen in Table 4, far more CFOs at private institutions report increased budgets than is true for their public sector peers; far fewer private college business officers report continuing modest or continuing severe budget reductions than their peers in public institutions. The assessments about recent budget history offered by business officers are generally more sanguine than that of the provosts and chief academic officers surveyed by Inside Higher Ed in December 2011. As shown in Table 5, within sectors, a larger proportion of CFOs than provosts report that institutional expenditures have generally increased since fall 2008; concurrently, provosts are far more likely than CFOs to report that their institutions have “suffered significant and continuing budget cuts in funding our core academic programs” over the past four years.
Attention Must Be Paid
The 2012 CFO survey aims to identify, from the perspective of campus business officers, which issues have benefited from or required their increased attention over the past five years.
As shown in Table 6, tuition issues – the market limit on tuition – reside high on the list of “attention” items among the CFOs at both public and private institutions. Business officers at private institutions express more concern about other tuition-related issues – discount rates and no-need merit scholarships – than is true for their peers at public colleges and universities. They also report paying more attention to credit market/bond ratings than do their public sector peers, no doubt because even public campuses that have suffered reductions in state funding still benefit from state credit ratings, unlike their private sector peers. In contrast, public campus business officers are more focused on the costs and profitability of their athletic programs and the prospects for increasing the faculty workload than are their counterparts in private institutions.
Despite both increasing public attention and, at some campuses, accompanying public commitments, the issue of salary equity -- within and across faculty ranks, between faculty and senior administrators, and also between faculty and staff -– ranks comparatively low as an “attention issue” among CFOs in both public and private institutions. And although more than two-fifths of business officers at public and private institutions report paying much more attention to “federal and state mandates” over the past five years, only a sixth indicate that the “cost of compliance with ADA/501 disability mandates,” an issue that has significant consequences as campuses encounter the ADA mandates that affect online education initiatives, has been the focus of increased CFO (and by extension, institutional) attention in recent years.
Are the Business Models Still Viable?
The current downturn has led to many private and some increasingly public conversations about the viability of the business models for various sectors of American higher education. The contraction of state funds has increased the pressure on many public institutions, and the increased competition for students and the downward public pressure on tuition pricing has tightened the vise on many private colleges. But as shown in Table 7, the majority of CFOs view the business models for most sectors as either viable or strained, but still workable.
As a group, chief financial officers are most optimistic about the business models for elite institutions – selective universities with endowments over $1 billion or liberal arts colleges that have endowments of more than $500 million. In contrast, chief financial officers view the business models for nonflagship (public) universities and community colleges as clearly stressed by the current economic situation, but still workable. One-third (31.1 percent) of public-college chief financial officers and almost half (49.4 percent) of their private sector peers assess the business model for other (i.e., less-selective or less-differentiated) private four-year colleges as troubled -- models that are “unsustainable and must change.”
Two-fifths of participants in the business officers’ survey say they “don’t know” if the current business model underlying for-profit higher education is viable.
On and Off the Table
The continuing impact of the economic downturn has led many campus leaders to consider deeper cuts in some areas already affected, new budget cuts in others, and to explore new, previously undiscussed institutional strategies to contain costs and generate revenue. The questionnaire asked CFOs to identify which strategies were currently under discussion at their institutions (“on the table”), which should be under discussion but were not (“not on the table but should be”), strategies that appropriately were not under review (“off the table”), and strategies that were inappropriate for the individual campus. Table 8 presents the “top five” strategies in each category.
Online education, collaboration with other campuses, streamlining individual administrative positions or reorganizing administrative units, and eliminating underperforming programs are, in aggregate and across sectors, the top five strategies CFOs report to be under discussion at their institutions. That these are the top five “under discussion” issues should come as no surprise: many of these issues were identified as institutional priorities, mandates or opportunities in Inside Higher Ed’s recent surveys of presidents and provosts, and also in the 2011 Inside Higher Ed survey of campus business officers. Like presidents and provosts, CFOs see important and strategic opportunities for their campuses to move to online education as a way to maintain (or increase) enrollments, increase revenue, and also reduce the costs of instruction. (However, faculty members express less confidence in the value of online learning, as revealed in the survey of faculty views on online education published last month by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group.)
While fully half of the surveyed CFOs report campus conversations about eliminating underperforming academic programs, another two-fifths (41.4 percent) report that this issue should be “on the table at their campus but is not.” Similarly, new collaboration opportunities for academic programs were under discussion at more than three-fifths of the surveyed institutions, yet more than a third (36.9 percent) of the CFOs report that collaboration is a top issue that should be under discussion at their institution but is not at present. The other top “should be discussed but is not” issues all focus on personnel issues: increasing teaching loads (42.8 percent), revising tenure policies (41.4 percent), and aggressively promoting early retirement programs for administrators and staff (38.3 percent).
These same personnel issues were also high on the presidential wish list when campus leaders, as part of Inside Higher Ed’s 2011 survey of presidents, were asked to identify things that “absent campus politics, I would really like to do … at my institution.” CFOs report that outsourcing academic programs, promoting the early retirement of administrators and staff, shifting undergraduate instruction to lower-cost part-time or non-tenured faculty, cutting intercollegiate athletic programs, and promoting the early retirement of faculty are the leading issues that are appropriately “off the table.” Although CFOs are clearly interested in finding ways to reduce instructional costs, fully half report that outsourcing academic programs is “off the table” at their institutions.
Interestingly, early retirement programs for administrators and staff are cited as a “should be on the table” issue by almost two-fifths of the surveyed CFOs, while almost a third (29.7 percent) report this is “off the table” at their campus. And despite the continuing concerns (or complaints) at many four-year colleges and universities about the costs of intercollegiate athletics, more than a fourth of the CFOs report that cutting athletic programs is clearly an “off the table” issue at their campuses. Finally, personnel issues – assigning senior faculty to teach undergraduate courses, tenure policies, and early retirement initiatives dominate the fourth category of CFO responses – were deemed not applicable at many campuses. For these four items, “not applicable” may, in many instances, reflect the realities of campus policies and politics. In contrast, intercollegiate athletics, in many instances, is “not applicable” simply because the campus does not have a significant intercollegiate program
(e.g., community colleges).
Continuing financial challenges offer campus leaders two options: (a) find ways to reduce expenses and (b) explore options to increase revenue. Leaders at most campuses typically try to pursue both options. However they recognize that budget cuts provide immediate reductions in expenditures while efforts to secure new revenues typically involve time and investment – and by extension, also some uncertainty as there is no guarantee that new academic programs will hit their enrollment and revenue targets or that a new development campaign will quickly generate the new funds needed for either continuing operations or to build the endowment.
Table 9 identifies the strategies that CFOs believe will be very important as part of the campus effort to increase revenue over the next two-three years. The top ranked item – increasing net tuition revenue (70.6 percent) – is well ahead of the next three items on the revenue list: developing/expanding online programs (52.8 percent), securing more corporate support (52.3 percent) and significantly increasing the size of the endowment (51.1 percent).
With regard to tuition revenue, financial officers know that there are two ways to increase it: (a) recruit a larger proportion of students who can or are willing to pay a greater portion of the tuition, either with personal or family funds or with the “hard cash” provided by government or other external grants, scholarships, and loans; or (b) reduce the tuition discounts (institutional aid or tuition waivers) that bridge some (or all) of the gap between family resources, external grants, scholarships and loans, and actual tuition, or that are used as nonneed (merit_ scholarships to encourage groups of students to matriculate. (Table 9 also reveals that almost two-fifths of the CFOs participating in the survey view “reducing the discount rate” as a very important revenue strategy.)
CFOs at public universities and master’s institutions strongly endorse increasing the recruitment of out-of-state and also international students, individuals who would pay higher out-of-state tuition fees. Recruiting international students is endorsed by large numbers of CFOs at private master’s and baccalaureate institutions (45.9 percent for master’s; 35.6 percent for baccalaureate), but not by their counterparts in private research universities, some of whom may have concluded that international students do not always provide the anticipated bounty of new (net) tuition revenue.
Online education as a source of new revenue receives strong support from business officers across almost all sectors, save for private universities. Similarly, business officers across all sectors also strongly endorse efforts to invest in more development efforts and to significantly increase the size of the endowment. However, as noted above, these and other new or refreshed revenue-generating initiatives will require both investment and time (instructional development and marketing for online programs; planning and marketing for development initiatives); moreover, the returns for these investments as reflected in new enrollment and tuition revenues, more grants and gifts from corporate sources and alumni, and increased funds for the endowment are not guaranteed.
Concurrent with efforts to increase revenues, most institutions confronting financial challenges also engage in focused efforts to contain or reduce operating expenses. Given their fiduciary responsibility to manage the money, a CFO’s assessment of where to cut or contain may be different from those of a president, provost, and other senior campus officials who have broader responsibilities for the academic enterprise.
Table 10 reveals that chief financial officers view eliminating low-enrollment programs as a very important strategy for reducing expenses over the next few years, followed by making more effective use of facilities, and using technology-based analytic tools to evaluate academic programs and campus services. Business officers also support using technology to reduce instructional costs, which aligns with their support for online education as a source of new revenue (Table 9). And while the survey data show consistent and strong chief financial officers support for the role of technology in instruction,
only a third (31.4 percent) of survey participants cite centralizing or consolidating IT resources and services as a very important strategy for reducing operating costs.
Only a third of the survey participants identify “increasing teaching loads for full-time faculty” as a very important option for reducing campus costs. (Their response may be in part a recognition of how politically difficult such a change can be.) The numbers for increasing teaching loads are highest at private master’s institutions (41.4 percent), where senior faculty may have lighter teaching responsibilities (or teach smaller, upper division classes), and at community colleges (37.7 percent), where instructors across all ranks typically carry a full teaching load.
In contrast, only a tenth of the chief financial officers in private universities view increasing teaching loads as an effective cost containment/reduction strategy, perhaps reflecting a set of institutional policies and practices that are unlikely to change. And despite some very animated public conversations in several states about reducing employee benefits, only a small proportion of chief financial officers identify reducing health care, retirement or other employee benefits as critical institutional strategies that will help reduce or contain operating costs.
They’re Not Listening
An open-ended question on the CFO questionnaire asked survey participants to identify “ideas you have proposed to cut your institution’s costs, increase productivity, or other otherwise change its business approach” that have not been accepted by other senior campus officials. Fully two-fifths (42 percent) of the survey participants took time to respond to this open-ended query. Some wrote a few words, others offered short (or in some cases long) lists of key issues or strategies, and more than two dozen forwarded thoughtful paragraphs about specific issues and the macro-challenges that confront their institutions.
The topics identified as “unheeded” suggestions cover the academic landscape, including many issues that were identified on the questionnaire:
• centralizing services, both for individual institutions and also for multicampus systems;
• making more use of technology in instruction and developing/expanding online education programs;
• increasing the teaching loads for full-time faculty and also making more use of adjuncts;
• revising or eliminating tenure;
• implementing post-tenure review policies;
• outsourcing non-academic services and even some academic support services;
• reducing (or eliminating) expenses for the intercollegiate athletic program;
• eliminating no-need scholarships used to entice targeted groups of students;
• increasing class size;
• reducing institutional support for health care and retirement benefits or having employees pay for a larger proportion of these costs;
• lowering admissions standards to matriculate more students;
• consolidating administrative positions and units;
• eliminating low-enrollment and underperforming academic programs;
• cutting child-care services for students and staff;
• collaborating with other institutions;
• benchmarking academic programs and administrative operations; and
• leveraging personnel and facilities by moving to a real 12 month operations calendar.
Some participants used the open-ended question to address the larger, macro issues confronting their institutions, and by extension, higher education in the United States. Reflecting some of the current public conversation about higher education as a business enterprise, the CFO at one private baccalaureate college wrote that
We need to manage our institution like a business. That is, we need to use [the] ROI model to evaluate our programs in the [context] of the institutional mission. Deans and department chairs need to share the responsibility of the CFO when managing their respective budgets instead of relying on the administrative managers or the CFO when it comes to business decisions. I would call it shared responsibility
as well as accountability. [Deans] need to put the institutional priorities above theirs.
Echoing the concerns of many business officers who believe that “faculty just don’t get it,” the CFO at a private master’s institution commented that:
Many faculty just don’t seem to grasp the need to cut academic costs. Moving toward hybrid courses with fewer hours of face-to-face contact between students and faculty could be a cost effective way of better utilizing our campus space and improving learning outcomes is just not under discussion; it needs to be. I think we need to provide faculty with some possible scenarios and models as a way of generating creative thought on their part.
The CFO at a private doctoral university used the open-ended question to challenge the view, affirmed by the survey data presented in this report and in Inside Higher Ed’s recent surveys of presidents and provosts, that online education could lead to rising enrollments, better educational outcomes, and quick revenue for many institutions:
Higher education leaders lack the courage that we once found in national leaders. Even this survey bows to the dogma that online is an improvement.
I teach and changing the academic business approach is code for dumbed down online degrees. Look at the research. Students don’t finish and [also]
incur large debt.
Political issues are cited in many of the comments offered by survey participants as the factor that dooms many efforts to engage in serious conversations about real restructuring and reorganization, and also any serious review of the institutional business model:
The issue is often that academic leaders can’t or won’t engage serious discussions about the viability of the business model. Most of them believe they will incite a rebellion or end up with vote of no confidence in their leadership, thus rendering themselves unemployable. On many campuses, they would likely end up in that place indeed.
Even as many senior campus officials, including CFOs, believe that transparency is a good thing for higher education and for individual institutions, the senior business officer at one elite private college views it as a serious problem that fuels discontent:
We constantly shoot ourselves in the foot by having so much transparency in salary administration. I know of no other industry that makes this information
as available as the education industry. I am ever amazed at the sense of entitlement on this and other campuses. I have suggested that we make salary administration very confidential. If employees don’t like not knowing what the budgeted pools are they are welcome to seek an improvement in their circumstance elsewhere. All colleges are labor intensive. We do not need to nurture this problem. That’s as candid as I can get.
Although the open-ended question offered survey participants an opportunity to vent about their proposals that may have been doomed because of campus policy or politics, some business officers acknowledged that their suggestions have been welcomed, appreciated and often implemented:
• The CFO at a private baccalaureate institution wrote that “my ideas are appreciated and the vital ideas are incorporated.
• The senior business officer at a private university commented that “we have a very open and collaborative environment. Ideas I have suggested have been fully vetted. Many have been implemented.”
Perspectives on Key Issues
The 2012 survey of financial officers provided a unique opportunity to poll CFOs on current topics, and, in some instances, compare the perspectives of business officers against the data from other recent Inside Higher Ed surveys.
The survey data reveal that approximately two-fifths of provosts and presidents generally agree that “faculty are realistic about the financial challenges” confronting their institutions. However, as shown in Figure 4, business officers are far more likely than provosts to agree or strongly agree that their campus can make “additional and significant budget cuts without hurting quality (21.6 percent for provosts, surveyed in December 2011 vs. 39.9 percent
for CFOs surveyed in June 2012).
Within sectors, roughly equal proportions of business officers at public (36.7 percent) and private (42.4 percent) institutions agree or strongly agree that faculty are realistic about pressing financial challenges. However, less than a third (31.0 percent) of CFOs at public institutions believe that their institutions can endure additional budget cuts without affecting quality, compared to almost half (48.3 percent) of their peers at private nonprofit institutions (Table 11). Although less than a majority of survey participants agree that faculty are realistic about pressing financial challenges, three-fifths (58.7 percent) of survey participants agree that their faculty “have been supportive of efforts to address budget problems.”
And the survey reveals that the four-fifths of the CFOs believe that senior administrators at their institutions have a realistic understanding of the financial issues that confront their campus. The data presented above in Table 11 also reveal that CFOs believe:
- Business models are sustainable: Healthy majorities of CFOs in all sectors believe that the business model for their campus is sustainable for the next five years, even if they may have doubts about the viability for peer campuses and other institutions (Table 7).
- Tuition discounts are also sustainable. Even as CFOs, as a group, report that they are paying more attention to the issue of tuition discounting (Table 6) and cite the need to increase net tuition revenue (Table 9), more than two-thirds (70.5 percent) of public sector business officers and almost half (49.4 percent) of their private sector counterparts disagree that “the current discount rate [at my campus] is unsustainable.”
- Transparency is good. Just over 70 percent of the business officers in both public and private institutions agree/strongly agree that “greater transparency in campus decision-making will result in better financial decisions.”
- Political or ethical issues should not affect investment decisions. Roughly two-thirds of the CFOs in both public and private institutions agree/strongly agree that “colleges should focus on financial issues (and not political or ethical ones) when deciding how to invest endowment funds.
- They were well-informed about campus issues going into their current jobs. More than three-fifths of the survey participants at both public and private institutions agree that they were “well-informed about campus issues – including the campus culture and budget issues – before accepting the job of CFO at this institution.”
- There are too many sacred cows at their campus. More than half of the business officers in public institutions and more than three-fifths at private colleges and universities report that “there are too many ‘sacred cows’ at my campus that can’t be touched.”
Concurrently, the survey data indicate that many business officers do not see real benefits from:
- Sustainability Efforts Have Limited Payback. Less than half (48.2 percent) of respondents agree that “sustainability” efforts at colleges and universities “have provided significant financial benefits.”
- Removing Confidentiality Clauses in Contracts. Just a third (33.5 percent) agree that “eliminating confidentiality clauses in vendor contracts would help lower costs in higher education.”