Colleges and universities are facing more financial decision-making pressure than ever before. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculated that state funding for higher ed since 2008 is down 16% — and that was prior to the global pandemic. McKinsey & Company estimates that, even if COVID-19 infection rates slow down this academic year, 25% of public institutions and almost half of private institutions will experience budget shortfalls of at least 5%. If ever there was a time to look at budget allocation for student services, it’s now.
Emergency funding for higher education
To help colleges and universities address the unexpected fiscal challenges brought on by COVID-19, the Consolidated Appropriations Act was signed into law on December 27, 2020. The act provides $22.7 billion in emergency assistance from the federal government for higher ed institutions and students, including $20.2 billion for public and private nonprofit institutions. (Read more from the U.S. Department of Education about the allocation of funds.) These funds are able to address short-term needs. However, colleges and universities — especially public institutions — continue to face long-term concerns, including tuition affordability and discounting pressures, reduced state funding, enrollment declines, and international student enrollment declines.
At the same time, generational shifts in student behaviors and changes brought about by the global pandemic have increased the need for implementing more holistic, integrated student services. The rise in mental health problems in the U.S. already had student development professionals worried about the need for additional support for struggling college students, as well as how schools provide that support. Now COVID-19 risk mitigation measures, such as online learning and physical isolation, put students at an even greater risk of facing negative mental health impacts.
Ideas for stretching your student services budget
Without question, student services and support systems contribute to the quality of students’ college experience and their academic success. Without operative support, there is a range of potentially serious and lasting consequences, including increased dropout rates, lower graduation rates, higher rates of substance abuse, and lower lifetime earning potential. But how can colleges and universities afford student support services with diminished resources?
Here are a few ideas for stretching your student services budget:
1. Use grants to request and source funds.
There are thousands of federal agencies, private foundations, corporations, and associations in the U.S. that provide grants for instructional projects, research, technology, and innovation. Once you have an idea for a grant proposal to fund your program, match your objectives to those of a funding organization. Understanding the funder’s goals and requirements will help you not only plan the proposal but ensure that it includes all of the information needed for review and serious consideration. Remember, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
2. Analyze the budget, and get efficient.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that ABC Insights conducted a research study of potential administrative efficiencies at its member universities. Nine administrative activities and 54 sub-activities were analyzed by comparing the number of employees and labor spent for a university compared to the benchmark average. That analysis generated a total savings opportunity of more than $1 billion for 32 members of the consortium, with an average amount per institution of $29 million. The top three areas for efficiency gains were information technology, general administration and finance.
Start by determining areas that could have a more cost-effective approach. Drill down into sub-activities to understand areas that may be overstaffed or not meeting expectations. Also, identify specific initiatives to generate potential savings. COVID-19 affords an opportunity to make budgeting changes that have historically been resisted by strong campus cultures or inertia. And keep in mind — generating efficiencies is not the end game but rather the re-investment in more strategic areas of prioritization.
3. Engage local and national crisis centers.
The mental health epidemic in higher ed is not slowing down. In fact, Inside Higher Ed recently reported on a survey from December 2020 finding that 79% of students said they were concerned about their mental health during the pandemic — an 8% increase since August.
Fortunately, organizations are ready to care for students during this time. Crisis centers provide mental health services and emotional support for their state or local communities and have crucial roles to play at a time of prolonged social isolation and stress. Most crisis centers are nonprofit, and many utilize trained volunteers as well as mental health professionals. Establishing partnerships at the campus level and providing financial support to these organizations ensures an ongoing resource for students at times of greatest need.
4. Identify strategic higher education partners to support student services.
For higher education institutions, finding the right strategic partners has the potential to fill gaps in service provider capacity, particularly for campuses that may lack the staffing, infrastructure and funds to offer on-campus medical or counseling services. Helping students get connected to support services through a warm handoff or the effective distribution of information reduces barriers to students accessing care, while saving the expense of providing physical, on-campus services. Explore the efficacy of partnering with organizations like:
Active Minds is a nonprofit organization that supports mental health awareness and education for young adults. Through education, research, advocacy, and a focus on young adults ages 14–25, Active Minds is opening up the conversation about mental health and creating lasting change in the way mental health is talked about, cared for and valued.
The Mental Health Coalition’s mission is to build a like-minded community that will work together to destigmatize all mental health conditions, enabling equitable access to vital resources and support for all. It is a coalition of the leading mental health organizations, brands and individuals who have joined forces to change the way people talk about and care for mental illness.
JED is a non-profit institution that seeks to protect emotional health and prevent suicide in teens and young adults. As part of its mission, JED operates the JED Campus program which provides colleges and universities with a comprehensive framework for supporting their students’ emotional health by strengthening mental health, substance use/misuse, and suicide prevention programs and systems. If your school is already a JED Campus, learn more about JED’s partnership with TimelyMD.
CollegeBuys, powered by the Foundation for California Community Colleges, offers competitive pricing on a wide range of products and services for higher ed leaders, including telehealth. CollegeBuys and TimelyMD formed an alliance to provide California college students access to no-cost, 24/7/365 on-demand medical and mental health services. Through the CollegeBuys system-wide agreement, all participating State of California higher ed leaders can choose from three different programs to meet the needs of their respective enrolled student population.
PyraMED Health Systems is a leading provider of college health, counseling, sports medicine, wellness, and accommodation software to institutions across the country. For over 25 years, PyraMED has been improving patient care for higher ed institutions of all sizes — from large universities with hospitals to small colleges with limited healthcare staff. PyraMED partners are also eligible for discounts on TimelyMD programs.
5. Expand telehealth services.
A RAND study found that over 60% of college students with mental health needs were open to using online mental health services. Given the shift to almost exclusive virtual health care during the pandemic, this number is likely higher now. COVID-19 amplified the benefits of telehealth services to improve the quality, equity and affordability of campus healthcare.
With skyrocketing costs, regulatory changes and evolving technology creating new challenges and opportunities for healthcare, consider virtual healthcare a way to collaborate with a strategic partner, improve student care on your campus, and reduce costs. A recent study confirms telehealth can expand care while reducing costs. The study was only the latest in a growing body of evidence that shows one of the value propositions of telehealth is a cost reduction and simultaneous growth in patient access to needed care.
Support services like telehealth can be funded by government stimulus funds. For example, Heidelberg University secured funding from the Ohio College Initiative Grant through the CARES Act to partner with TimelyMD to offer students free, immediate and unlimited access to high-quality medical care and mental health counseling. This institution’s experience exemplifies how telehealth promotes student success and well-being, boosts efficiency and saves money.
COVID-19 highlighted a system that was already struggling to meet the needs of college students. And while it’s likely there will be additional stimulus money for higher ed coming in 2021, be prepared for budget cuts. (For more information, read the January, 14, 2021 letter to Public and Private nonprofit college and university presidents from the Department of Education) Plan to cut more rather than less, and be in a position to re-invest according to your strategy when the time is right. As you seek ways to positively impact student outcomes, retention and graduation rates, seize this moment to explore ideas that can increase the effectiveness of your support services for the benefit of your students — and your budget.
If you’re ready to collaborate with a strategic telehealth partner, TimelyMD is ready to help your institution meet the care needs of your students in a way that fits within your budget. Contact us to learn more.