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Business Officer Magazine

When Modifications Are a Must

Access, affordability, and high completion rates have long been hallmarks of California State University, Long Beach. But, as the state’s severe budget constraints push more costs onto students, university leaders do the hard work of adjusting to an environment with new rules.

By Mary Stephens

Starting this year, the state appropriation for California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) will be $121 million. However, our fee revenue will be nearly double that figure, at nearly $222 million. This is a major change in a state with a master plan that calls for a low-fee higher education alternative for its citizens.

The CSU has recognized this change in our financial structure by now referring to our fees as "tuition fees," since the students now pay two thirds of their educational costs. From the public's perspective these increases occurred quite quickly: Tuition fees doubled over the past five years (from $2,772 per year to $5,970 per year), while base state support will have been reduced by 50 percent over the same period, if the tax initiative on the November ballot fails.

Despite the challenges posed by diminishing financial resources, CSULB has the second-lowest cost per student FTE in the CSU, and we are extremely proud of the low student-loan debt that graduating Long Beach students incur. Moreover, we serve a high percentage of Pell Grant students, whom we consider an important component of a diverse student body.

Despite all our efforts, however, financial constraints cause us to change some of our long-held practices. As a campus, we are pursuing more efficient operations to counter continually increasing costs, and as a member of a statewide system we are evaluating synergy projects that pull all our campuses together to improve processes and lower expenses.

Judicious Use of IT Resources

As everyone in higher education is aware, technology spending can constantly increase and still not seem like enough. Starting with the network infrastructure needed to support everything from new instructional practices, to research activities, to secure financial transactions, maintaining a secure and robust network "utility" is a tall order. But that is only part of the story. We must find ways to develop and support future classroom designs that allow our faculty to make the best curricular use of instructional technology. A current project here at CSULB funds an experimental classroom designed specifically for this purpose; that is, letting our faculty push the edge of the instructional envelope.

As for student demands, a recent EDUCAUSE program, "Rolling Out a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)," in my experience, is totally on target. Students are saying, "Deliver it on my iPhone; I want it on my Droid. How about a portal so online I can find a parking place? What's available to eat on campus? And can't I register for classes as well?" People often don't realize that the infrastructure and security issues involved in providing such mobile services are significant. But that fact doesn't mean the demand will go away or that we can ignore it.

Efficiencies to Control Costs

In response to the tightening budget, and because it is often a better way to do business, the CSU system has been pursuing systemwide efficiency projects for some time. The most significant is our collaboration on administrative systems. Phase one of the effort moved the campuses to common software. Next we'll leverage the software commonality to achieve increased consolidation. The most significant such move has been to the Common Financial System. CFS reduced each campus's investment in maintaining and upgrading the system (now done centrally), and operating the equipment on which the system runs (now consolidated in a single data center).

We plan to achieve a similar consolidation of our human resource systems. This project is much bigger and more complex, even though the campuses already use common software. The first phase is defining similar-enough business practices to allow campus systems consolidation. 

The ultimate intent: minimizing our spending on the technical solution (still a large investment), while optimizing our use of the resulting system. That would mean facilitating simplified and streamlined processes and providing accurate and helpful management information.

Of course, the biggest challenges are not technical, but cultural. It is amazing how processes differ on each campus—and how wedded everyone is to his or her ways. We are asking ourselves, does each campus really need to have a unique procurement process? Is that the highest value to a university? Or should our distinction be in our academic departments?  Easy to make this argument in theory but much more difficult in practice. Still, everyone on campus—faculty, staff, and students—deserves the best possible work and learning environment. And to achieve that goal we must ask ourselves the tough questions and answer them in the best financial interest of the university.

MARY STEPHENS is vice president, finance and administration, California State University, Long Beach.