Quality Endeavors Issue No. 107 February 2008

Managing Limited Resources in Higher Education

This month’s feature article is by Joan Pecht, a doctoral student in Higher Education in the College of Education at Penn State.

Resource management has become a topic of lively discussion across institutions of higher education. As demands upon limited resources increase, sometimes an organization has to find a way to say “No.”

Over the past several decades, institutions of higher education have consistently seen a decrease in funding from the state and federal governments. Simultaneously, as different types of institutions (e.g., for profit, on-line) have begun to crop up, universities have been forced to reevaluate their use of technology, content delivery methods, and ways to attract students. These initiatives often increase expenses. Additionally, increased competition is not limited to the United States. As other countries have begun to expand and improve their educational systems, the United States is losing its place as the premiere country for higher education. In the midst of these continuing budgetary issues, institutions face the rising focus on accountability from the public and government. These demands on higher education have forced many institutions to turn inward to reflect on and understand their practices for creating effective and efficient systems. This article will explore two theories on resource management and examples of adapted structures that have been successfully used by other universities.

Padilla, in Portraits in Leadership: Six Extraordinary University Presidents. (ACE/Praeger Series on Higher Education, 2005) identifies higher education institutions as “complex organizations” (p. 11). Their management of resources is also complex. At the most basic level, resources can be divided into academic and administrative. However, such a simple division belies the numerous components of a university. On the academic side, institutions are divided into colleges, departments, majors, and minors with tenured faculty, affiliate faculty, associate, part-time, full-time, instructors, and the list continues. On the administrative side, there are divisions of student affairs, athletics, facilities, development, alumni, and so forth. Managing the resources and funds of each individual department can be a difficult and daunting task.

In Honoring the Trust: Quality and Cost Containment in Higher Education (Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 2003) Massy looks at resource management through the lens of continued change. He considers resource management to be the ability to create a quality structure within the university that is balanced with cost and spending habits. He notes that institutions are constantly being stretched in several directions, including, as a minimum, research, service, and teaching. As a result, heavier focus in one specific area may cause institutions to lose focus on their overarching goal, education. Massy provides ‘Seven Education Quality Principles’ as a way to be successful in managing cost and quality. These are: 1) defining outcomes; 2) focusing on the process and assessment; 3) striving for coherence; 4) working collaboratively; 5) making decisions based on facts; 6) identifying best practices; and 7) enforcing the priority of continuous improvement.

The approach of Michigan State University (MSU) demonstrates Massy’s principles. In its 2004 Resource Management Principles: Approaches to Planning and Budgeting (http://provost.msu.edu/office/documents/Resource_Management_Principles.pdf), MSU describes a framework they follow to help their decision making process. These principles are similar to Massy’s as they outline MSU’s specific goals and outcomes, list ways in which these outcomes will be measured, and how decisions will be driven by facts and figures. Most important is the idea that resource management cannot be successful without fact-driven decision making. By creating lists of measurable outcomes and determining assessment methods to drive these outcomes, universities have the capability to make decisions that are supported by data and details.

Dickeson, in Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services:  Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance (Jossey-Bass, 1999) also writes on resource management, focusing primarily on the academic side. He views resource management by breaking down the institution into multiple different “academic programs.” He considers the academic program to be the “heart of the institution” (p. 10). However, through lack of communication, poor planning, and inappropriate allocation of resources, programs can become unrealistic, out of touch with the needs of the stakeholders, and a waste of resources. Old methods of “across-the-board cuts” result in “mediocrity for all programs” (p. 11). Instead, a new method of resource allocation must be considered. In his first step towards better resource management, Dickeson calls for a university to consider its mission. Given its mission, programs can be reviewed, developed, changed, and prioritized based on their ability to support measurable outcomes of the mission. This, Dickeson notes, is distinctly different from reviewing a program. Reviews alone do not effectively take into account a university’s mission and resources and can cause stagnation; prioritization however, includes important language such as assessment and reallocation that can help move an institution towards appropriate expenditures. Once this has been done, universities can select outcomes and determine the measuring and analysis process. In this way, informed decisions can be made.

An example of effective implementation of Dickeson’s model can be found at Drake University, described in “Keeping Programs and Resources in Sync (NACUBO, April 2007, http://www.nacubo.org/x9039.xml). Similar to many other institutions, Drake University had a problem with a deficit, and too many programs and staff being added outside of its available budget and resources. Drake University, however, was able to change its financial situation following Dickeson’s model by establishing specific goals that were tied to the university’s mission. Drake then developed a prioritization system which considered the institutional goals ahead of those of the department and individual employee. Additionally, Drake University looked at the role of each program (both academic and administrative) and used collaborative measures to merge programs that were duplicating work. Assessments and outcomes were measured, and through the prioritization system decisions on eliminations and mergers were made. As a result, Drake University was able to save $4 million in permanent budget funds and produce an operating budget surplus of 1.4%.

The difficulty of resource management is its often negative association with elimination and cuts. Instead, administrators should understand resource management as collaboration, consolidation, and efficiency. In a time where resources are minimal and competition is high, the ability of a university to operate efficiently could determine its success or failure. Successful resource management, however, is not limited to a university’s ability to manage a budget. It can lead to a transformation, a culture shift that recognizes the importance of change, strategic planning, and effective program design. As both Dickeson and Massy point out, successful resource management is a direct result of open communication, shared missions, and the ability to make resource management part of the culture of the university. Dickeson’s model provides the best outlook in understanding the power of language. His emphasis on the difference between prioritizing and review shows how a university can be constrained by the “old ways” of doing things. Most importantly though, as Massy suggests, is the ability to successfully create change through informed decision-making. In this manner higher education cannot shy away from assessment but must embrace the idea of measurable outcomes and create conversation and dialogue on their campus.

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