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Business Officer Magazine
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All-Inclusive Effort to Stabilize Finances

Spotlight: Community Colleges, from "Business Briefs" department in the January 2011 issue of Business Officer

By Susan Perkins

Shrinking appropriations coupled with the pressure to raise tuition motivated leaders at Middlesex County College, Edison, New Jersey, to search for ways to improve operations and cut costs. Cost efficiencies seemed to be a constant discussion topic at most internal meetings, as well as those of trustees and board committees.

A number of our board members had strong financial backgrounds and were willing to participate in a structured review of the college's operations and costs. We formed the financial stability subcommittee, soon known as the "workgroup." Our mission was to recommend cost savings, increased efficiencies, and income-producing ideas—all consistent with the college's purposes.

The workgroup's membership included several board members, the college president, and the executive council, which is composed of staff members representing all academic and support areas on campus. Executive council involvement provided knowledgeable input from all areas and allowed for proper assignment of implementation responsibility. The outcomes of our work included a matrix format to use as a guide for undertaking projects scheduled across several fiscal years. Early results include expected direct savings and unanticipated efficiencies. The review and adoption of ideas across traditional lines of responsibility also results in employees working more cooperatively.

Working Ways

The workgroup held brainstorming sessions during which ideas were discussed and recorded, without regard to viability. These interactions provided participants with the opportunity to learn more about the inner workings, policies, and procedures of the college. It also clarified the kinds of ongoing cost-savings efforts and efficiencies already in place.

After several such meetings, we compiled a matrix of ideas grouped by area of responsibility and indicated whether they were one-time or recurring events. We thought developing the matrix would be the most challenging part of our endeavors, but prioritizing and identifying target dates proved much more time-consuming and difficult. 

Recommendation Refinements

Instead of embedding evaluation criteria into the matrix to dictate which ideas would receive priority to move forward, we selected projects that would represent various college areas, along with a mix of required costs and short- or long-term timelines.

Among the initiatives we selected to move forward were:

  • Review academic scheduling practices. This resulted in more-effective use of space and improved ongoing coordination between credit and noncredit areas.
  • Evaluate energy-purchasing consortia, on-campus conservation projects, and alternative-energy sources. Facilities and finance areas worked jointly on this analysis.
  • Consider fee schedules for appropriateness and adequacy. The academic and finance areas collaborated to revise fees and increase related revenue.

Second Guesses

Although the overall results of the workgroup's efforts were deemed successful, we did encounter difficulties during the process. As we discussed ideas, for example, we realized that things are often different when viewed at a detailed level. We eliminated several promising projects once we realized the costs and benefits were not advantageous to the college.

We also learned that our timelines were too ambitious. Staff struggled with regular workloads while doing the extra work of implementing the workgroup's selected initiatives.

Ultimately everyone felt that the results justified continuing the work. The results were a win-win, and we learned the value of working cooperatively on creative ideas to save the college money and time. We are currently investigating a revised mechanism to continue our cost-saving and efficiency efforts without overtaxing those involved in the work.

SUBMITTED BY Susan Perkins, vice president for finance and administration, Middlesex County College, Edison, New Jersey