5 Tips For Maximizing Your Education Abroad Budget

Innovation And Entrepreneurship In Education Abroad Operational Management

As funding allocated in support of higher education in the U.S. has gradually declined in some regions or has remained stagnant in others, there is no doubt that international educators across the country are facing increasing challenges with securing adequate resources. Education abroad directors are assertively benchmarking funding practices and pursuing new approaches to sustain and/or enhance education abroad operations. This four-part series will appeal to those education abroad professionals who are eager to explore entrepreneurial strategies and savvy approaches to maximizing education abroad operational funding.  

 By Dr. Anthony C. Ogden, ISA Consultant

Take out a bunch of coins and put them flat on your desk.  Push them together so that they are touching but not overlapping. What do you see?

Those coins nicely grouped together on your desktop, in all their different values, sizes and colors provide an apt analogy with which to consider the varying systems and structures at your home institution.  Some coins are larger and more imposing, but size alone doesn’t dictate value or worth. Although the colors may vary and there may be multiple coins of the same denomination, assuredly some appear newer and shinier while others may be older and well-worn. Some are heads-up while others are heads-down. In much the same way, institutional systems and structures vary by prominence, redundancy, and relevance.  And just as some of the coins are touching, some systems and structures at your institution may appear to be strategically aligned while others are seemingly random or without purpose.

It is critically important for higher education administrators to understand the intricate nuances of the systems and structures at one’s home institution and to maneuver accordingly to ensure compliance, transparency and efficiency.  What is perhaps even more important, however, is to acknowledge the gaps in the spaces between the coins, for it is precisely in these gaps where one can navigate between existing systems and structures.  It is the ability to expertly navigate these spaces that enables one to thrive within institutional bureaucracies.

What follows are five tips for education abroad professionals that encourage looking beyond day-to-day practices and protocols, or the standard refrain “we’ve always done it this way,” to considering new or alternative ways to maximize your education abroad operational budget, and thereby enhance your overall operations.

1) ALIGN YOUR INTERNATIONAL RATIONALE, STRATEGY, AND RESOURCES

Education abroad office funding models vary by institution, ranging from primarily self-sustaining offices that are funded through tuition, fees, and external revenue, to primarily centrally funded offices that receive an annual allocation provided by the institution. What is consistent across institutions, however is that all education abroad offices should have an operating budget that is easily accessible and used as a road map for how the office sets its priorities for the year. The budget is to be used as a tool for decision making and as a means with which to monitor financial performance.

Maximizing the budget requires tightly aligning your rationale, strategy, and resources. In other words, the budget should ideally emerge from your strategic plan, which articulates the outputs and outcomes of your internationalization efforts. As such, the budget indicates an agreement on what activities or initiatives will be prioritized for the year and how resources will be utilized. It also allows the office to discontinue those traditional functions or initiatives that no longer align with the goals and direction of the institution.

The office funding model will dictate how the budget is to be constructed and what revenue and expenses should be tracked. When creating the budget, it is important to determine the extent to which fund balances, if any, can be carried forward across fiscal years and what restrictions are in place for using these funds. It is similarly important to determine if the office is required to develop and maintain a contingency fund account for international emergencies, and if so, how and at what desired amount. Especially for self-sustaining offices, it is important to investigate the extent to which reserve accounts can be created to maintain operations in the event that unexpected enrollment shifts lead to decreased revenue. Finally, it is important to determine how to handle financial losses and gains on program-specific budgets.

2) PLAN WELL AND PROMOTE TRANSPARENCY, ENGAGEMENT, AND FLEXIBILITY

Why all the secrecy around office budgets? There is seldom any need to keep your office budget secret, but rather there is much to be gained by engaging your team and key stakeholders in monitoring financial decisions and the smooth operation of the office. The extent and ease with which others can access the operational budget is a prerequisite for participation and accountability. Budget transparency allows others to understand the office’s priorities and potentially removes speculation and doubt.

When determining your annual budget, do so in partnership with key members of your team, especially those that are to be assigned the responsibility and authority for implementing essential sections of the budget. Ensure that the budget is updated continuously so that all can monitor current revenue flows to expenses. If possible, add year-on-year comparisons to gauge your level of activity relative to previous years. Don’t hesitate to make mid-year adjustments, if necessary, to pursue unplanned opportunities. And remember it is in your best interest to plan and budget as precisely as possible. Whereas one might naturally feel pleased with being under budget, note that any underutilized money could have been allocated elsewhere in the budget to advance other priorities.

3) LOOK BEYOND YOUR FUNDING MODEL

According to the 2017 State of the Field survey conducted by the Forum on Education Abroad, of the 259 institutions and organizations that responded, 35% of U.S. private institutions and 47% of public institutions indicated that rising costs and/or declining resources have led their institutions to change their education abroad operations for the coming academic year. In addition to cutting expenses and increasing internal advocacy efforts, education abroad professionals are readily looking to external sources of funding and support. Many are actively engaging in alumni and donor stewardship, corporate and community outreach, organizing fundraising events, writing grant proposals, advocating at state and federal levels, and so on.

A less common, but seemingly effective approach involves leveraging new partnerships or collaborations that can potentially extend capacity and ease staff workloads. For example, some offices have partnered with travel agencies for assistance with supporting student travel or have called upon insurance providers to help defray costs associated with producing health and safety materials. Similarly, many offices have started to turn to affiliated provider organizations for assistance with student advising, portfolio management, faculty-directed programming, campus promotion and outreach, evaluation and assessment research, and increasing student scholarship support, etc. Still others are exploring revenue-generating activities such as event and materials sponsorship, becoming a school of record, and becoming a designated campus passport office.

4) COUPLE YOUR PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT BUDGET WITH ANNUAL PERFORMANCE PLANNING

Irrespective of your total operational budget, it is important to have a clear and transparent strategy for the professional development of your team. It is rather common for education abroad offices to prioritize funding for international site visits, conferences and professional memberships. It is less common, however, for such offices to proactively align annual performance goals and expectations with professional development funding. Consider having each member of your team develop a professional development plan that aligns with his/her respective annual performance evaluation and job description. Individual plans should be developed in recognition of the essential knowledge and skills that are needed for further success. Allocate your professional development funds accordingly.

Better still might be to develop a system in which an annual pre-determined amount is allocated to each individual and if possible, allow the total amount to accrue across fiscal years up to a maximum limit. This approach empowers one to take further ownership of their own professional development and encourages intentional long-term planning and saving for more expensive professional development opportunities. If possible, be sure to set aside an amount to further incentivize team members to pursue professional development initiatives that align with the priorities of the office. For example, if it is a priority of the office that team members show progress in their development as international educators, incentivize conference presentations, research and scholarship, engaging in professional associations, etc. In time, this approach may save money, boost overall staff performance and morale, and increase employee retention rates.

5) INVEST IN YOUR FACULTY

The Golden Rule is very simple and goes something like this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In the education abroad profession, however, it is essential to adopt the Platinum Rule: “Do unto the faculty as they would want done unto.” For years, education abroad professionals have struggled with how to engage the faculty in education abroad programming rather than more appropriately focusing on understanding the motivations of the faculty and how to leverage international education as a means to support the realization of their goals. At any institution, the faculty own and control the curriculum and any real success in advancing education abroad is found by working with, and through, the faculty. So, focus on what the faculty want and assure yourself a better outcome.

Rather than invest so heavily in direct student marketing and promotional activities, consider re-aligning your annual budget with the goals and strategies of the academic units at your institution. Know what is being prioritized, what metrics have been determined, what is being assessed, and what new initiatives are being launched. Collaborate as a supportive partner and seek opportunities for joint programming, cost-sharing and revenue-generation. Pursue opportunities that support the international engagement of your faculty by investing in international faculty development seminars, international research collaborations, visiting faculty appointments, and so on. And keep in mind, students generally stay for four years, and your faculty can stay on for decades. Investing in your faculty gradually lessens the financial burden of student marketing and promotion and stimulates curriculum integration.


NOTE:

In July, ISA will be hosting ThinkDen 2018, a unique professional development workshop on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Modeled as a think tank, ThinkDen will bring together a number of senior education abroad professionals for an interactive forum. Participants will critique common operational funding models, explore new and alternative revenue streams, and consider new directions in external collaboration and partnership. ISA will subsequently produce a special report as a contribution to the profession, featuring content from ThinkDen 2018. For more information, please click here.


REFERENCES:

  1. Forum on Education Abroad. (2018). State of the Field 2017.  Carlisle, PA.  Retrieved May 3, 2018 from, https://forumea.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/ForumEA-State-of-the-Field-18-web-version.pdf

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