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5 Tips for Balancing Your Budget

By Emily Rogan

Having helped Alamo Colleges in Texas manage a $20 million budget shortfall in 2010, Diane Snyder discusses the importance of transparency and collaboration in an era of fiscal restraint.

Ask Diane Snyder, vice chancellor for finance and administration at Alamo Colleges in Texas, what she thinks of the fiscal challenges facing the nation’s community colleges and she’ll tell you: There is no excuse for colleges that continue to operate in the status quo.

A new normal of declining budgets and increased enrollments has forced leaders at her college and elsewhere to adjust their thinking, especially when it comes to funding important campus reforms.

“This is not a temporary problem,” she says of the budget and funding cuts that have forced so many colleges to do more with less. “We need to have a hard discussion on where we can go after the money strategically and not just cut our budgets.”

We need to have a hard discussion on where we can go after the money strategically and not just cut our budgets.

That thinking led Alamo Colleges to develop its Budget Alignment Methodology (BAM), a new financial philosophy that saved the college more than $21 million in its first year—without a single staff layoff or pay cut.

How’d they do it? In case you missed it, Snyder recently talked with the editors of the American Association of Community Colleges Community College Daily about her process for working across the institution to balance the budget, including a two-day retreat that assembled more than 50 administrators from every corner of the college to identify collective cost-cutting measures.

Below she offers five tips for fellow community colleges looking to create more flexibility in an era of fiscal belt-tightening.

Encourage collaboration. The 50 people invited to the Alamo retreat included employees from across the institution, from the buildings and grounds staff to the administration. Participants were asked to submit cost-savings ideas in advance; no idea was a bad idea. Everyone had a vote and only approved ideas were submitted for detailed analysis. The process helped administrators create buy-in and ensured nobody wasted time on ideas that lacked the necessary internal support.

Provide incentives. To maintain momentum and encourage staff to stay engaged in the problem-solving process, Alamo shells out 10 percent of the savings realized from an adopted idea, up to $10,000, to the employee who suggested it. The team responsible for implementing the idea receives a bonus equal to 2 percent of the realized savings.

Communicate well. “You just can’t communicate enough,” says Snyder. Her team uses e-mails, town halls and the college website, among other resources, to keep faculty and staff informed. The process has allowed the college to create a sense of transparency that faculty and others in the community appreciate. “It’s important to remind people of the bigger picture of what we’ve done and celebrate that,” says Snyder.

Generate new ideas. As part of its “cycle of improvement,” the college launched Alamo Ideas, an online tool that lets employees see what ideas their colleagues have suggested and add on to those ideas. This helps drive innovation, says Snyder.

Look to the future. Moving forward, she says the college is committed to identifying “funds through other strategies to invest in student success.” In many cases, money has been set aside to “invest in bringing to scale some of the programs across the colleges.”

One area of focus is student advisement, with the goal of creating clearer student pathways from education to work.

Snyder’s team is also looking at technology and operations as a means of working smarter, not harder. “I think it’s all about being proactive, planning and understanding what the future looks like—telling that story and being strategic about it,” she says.

Want more ideas that promise to help your college do more with less? Don’t miss our two-part series on creative strategies for community college reform.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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