If Ohio University kept its money in one big wallet, it’d be thinner this fall than it was last year.
While most students were away from Athens in June, OU’s Board of Trustees approved a university budget that anticipates a decline in income as the school operates in an “environment of constrained resources,” officials said.
“It is a difficult environment,” said Chad Mitchell, special assistant to the vice president of finance and administration for OU. “It has required leadership across the university to be committed to taking a longer-term approach and be willing to think of different ways of doing business in an environment with less resources.”
The university has budgeted for operating results of $53.2 million for fiscal year 2018, close to a 50 percent decline in the same metric for the prior year, for which it forecast $101 million.
A decline in an enrollment and no new net revenue made this year’s budget process difficult, said Katie Hensel, OU’s budget director.
In the process of tightening its belt, this year, the university slashed a raise pool for university employees that had been in place for the prior three years.
Mitchell recognizes the school will have to bring those raises back eventually and said it will be one of the first topics of discussion when the Budget Planning Commission meets in the coming weeks.
“That’s very much not going to be a sustainable model,” Mitchell said of cutting the raise pool. “But it has to be in balance with the financial models of how we can make that work.”
Faculty Senate Chair Joe McLaughlin said in an email he thinks “faculty are generally disappointed about the lack of raises,” but said they understand that flat financial support from the state of Ohio and a mandated tuition freeze have put a strain on resources.
Uncertainty stemming from the state budget process, which Gov. John Kasich signed in late June, in part clouded the university’s budget planning process for this fiscal year, Mitchell and Hensel said.
By the time OU had to submit its budget in June, Ohio’s budget was still slogging through the legislature, leaving public universities across the state guessing about how much state funding they’d receive.
That uncertainty is not just an issue in Ohio — it’s happening around the country, one expert said.
“It is, unfortunately, becoming all too common, and it is an enormous problem,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
“In the old days, we had much more predictable, much more stable governmental practices in this country,” Nassirian said, adding “increasingly, government is acting like a reckless teenager … so it's becoming difficult to run an orderly organization that has to provide services to its citizens.”
The university’s switch to the Common Application and changes to the FAFSA process last fall compounded the uncertainty for OU. Switching to the Common App led to a surge in applications, Hensel said.
Initially, budget planners projected a freshman class equal in size to that of last fall. But then that surge in applications led to planners projecting a class 152 students stronger than the prior year.
As housing deposits rolled in, though, the estimate was pushed downward, landing on an expected class 200 students weaker than the prior year, per the budget book. Some $3.8 million in funds will likely be shuffled out of a reserve account to make up for that lost revenue.
Hensel said difficulty projecting enrollment figures is not unusual when universities switch to the Common App.
“It’s not uncommon, but I will say trying to predict your enrollment can be one of the most important pieces of your budget process,” Hensel said.
Markets Go Up
The university’s investment portfolio saw strong gains during the past year.
The value of OU’s long-term investment pool increased by $53 million on net, from $596.3 million at the beginning of the 2017 fiscal year to $649.3 million in March. The same fund sustained a $29.2 million loss during the year prior.
“These returns, when you look at them on a year-to-year basis, can really be pretty volatile,” Mitchell said, adding that the fund’s results are “primarily market-driven.”
The university pays a third-party firm, Hirtle, Callaghan and Co., to manage its long-term investment pool.