How I learned to love budgeting (and you can too)

Between decreasing government appropriations, fluctuating enrollments, increasing pressure for tuition increases and rising costs of salaries and benefits, many higher education institutions are feeling the pinch. While this is nothing new for Ramapo College of New Jersey, as the chief budget officer I see that it’s becoming harder to find a balance between the supply of funding and the demand for services.

Between decreasing government appropriations, fluctuating enrollments, increasing pressure for tuition increases and rising costs of salaries and benefits, many higher education institutions are feeling the pinch. While this is nothing new for Ramapo College of New Jersey, as the chief budget officer I see that it’s becoming harder to find a balance between the supply of funding and the demand for services.

Struggling with limited resources

In the past, we solicited input and budget requests from department heads, generated reports, created forecasts, had lots and lots (and lots) of meetings, and then did it all over again—monthly, annually, or whenever needed.

It was painful, slow, and cumbersome. After 17-plus years in a higher ed budget office, I know there will always be requests for more resources. I also know that it’s the dubious honor of those in my position to figure out how to balance all of these demands and issue a guiding document that is informative rather than symbolic. Budget officers are like cheerleaders: “Fill out that request! Answer these questions! Meet your deadlines! Rah! Rah! Rah!”

But even cheerful budget officers can’t transform organizations with manual tools like Excel. After all, how can you implement a dynamic plan for the future when you can only pull data for a fixed point in time? And how can you make strategic decisions without the latest information? Like many finance teams, we realized that in order to survive, we needed a compass, not a ruler.

Transforming the budget and planning function

A few years ago, we looked for software that could help us create a more dynamic and flexible budget process—one that was less tactical and more strategic, less time-consuming and more accurate. Eventually, we found a planning solution that even nonfinance people at the college can navigate and use—Adaptive Insights.

How has Adaptive Insights transformed the budget and planning function at Ramapo College? Well, for starters, gone are the days when we downloaded data to create complex spreadsheets to analyze our operating results and forecast. By the time the spreadsheets were completed and checked, the data was almost stale, and we needed to begin again. Now that we have access to the right information at the right time, we can quickly analyze historical data, identify current and future trends, and make smarter, faster budget decisions based on fresh insights—not outdated data.

Getting stakeholders to participate in the budget has been extremely challenging over the years. Weighing them down with difficult-to-use reporting tools and outdated technology makes the process more difficult than it has to be. And without an automated process, stakeholder participation is a double-edged sword. On one hand, managers are more invested in the budget process. On the other, when requests come in—for supplies, additional staff, more scholarships—those costs impact the base budget.

Before Adaptive Insights, to see the impact of an athletic fee increase, for example, we had to back each rejected request out of the base budget. With Adaptive Insights, we can now toggle requests in and out of the budget without altering the base budget. This arms decision-makers with the right information to approve or reject requests as they flow in.

Show them the money

Managing budget requests is just the tip of the iceberg. Like many higher education institutions, Ramapo College has numerous funding sources (e.g., federal and state agency grants, tuition and fees, donors), all with reporting requirements and strict guidelines. Predicting revenue for a year, let alone five years, is impossible without access to real-time data.

Our five-year plan, as well as our annual revenue budget, needs to include variables like enrollment scenarios, housing occupancies, and tuition fluctuations. And the impact of various scenarios has to be available at the drop of a hat. Sitting in a meeting with the dean, for example, I need to be able to answer ad hoc questions about the impact of a 3% tuition increase or hiring new faculty lines.

Managing our funds has also been a challenge. The budget process for our Strategic Priority Initiative Fund is similar to other business units, but the fund is included in our income statement. By implementing a powerful planning platform, stakeholders can now drill down to see the details of funds like this one—something they could never do before.

Better budgeting through technology

Whether managing multiple funds, sorting through piles of budget requests, or striving to make the budget process less painful, Adaptive Insights has dramatically improved all aspects of our operational and financial planning at Ramapo College. Like many colleges, we grapple with limited resources and increased demand for those resources. But with smarter planning tools, we can roll with the punches, stay ahead of the inevitable funding fluctuations, and model a variety of scenarios with ease.

These days, higher education institutions like ours require dynamic and robust budgeting tools that do more than generate static reports. We need solutions that help generate robust financial plans, forecasts and reports.

Adaptive Insights helps us:

  • Develop budget models that inform real resource allocation decisions
  • Report with speed and accuracy to stakeholders
  • Provide key insights quickly and on the fly, without altering base budgets
  • Empower stakeholders to get the information they need with self-service reports

Budgeting is definitely both art and science. Finding software tools powerful enough to accommodate the inherent complexities of higher education is like finding a needle in a haystack. And we found that needle—Adaptive Insights.

Today, budgeting is no longer painful and slow. It’s enjoyable. I’ve learned to love budgeting. Maybe you can too.

Visit our Customer Success section to learn how Adaptive Insights has helped other companies transform FP&A.

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