Wednesday, March 04, 2009


The story in the Chronicle yesterday about California paying its community colleges in IOU's got me thinking about reserves, and the conflicting roles they play.

In good years, some cc's are able to salt away some money and put it into reserves. (It's also commonly called a “rainy day fund.”) The idea is that public funding is notoriously and viciously cyclical, so having a pile of stray money can minimize the damage you have to endure in down cycles. Given how much of our budget is fixed cost, there's a real logic to this.

But reserves are a tricky business.

If they get too high, they become very tempting targets for state governments and/or employee unions. It's hard for an employer to plead poverty at negotiation time if it's sitting on a big honkin' pile of money. And it's hard to make the case for sparing a college from cuts during recessionary crises when the other institutions with which they're basically competing for funds – prisons, K-12, etc. – don't have reserves.

Boards of Trustees also frequently have conflicted attitudes towards reserves. On one level, they love reserves, since they signify good financial management, and they buffer against abrupt cuts. But there's also a commonly-held view that reserves aren't to be used for 'operating' expenses, since that's interpreted as feeding a structural deficit. Depending on how strongly the Board feels about this, it's possible for a college to find itself spending reserves on construction even while it lays off employees. Even if it's generally understood as a rainy day fund, it can be nearly impossible to convince some Boards that it's raining.

(In their defense, using reserves for operating expenses can get you into a 'percentage' trap. If, say, three percent of this year's budget is covered by 'excess' reserves, then next year you either drain the reserves more, or ask for what looks like an astronomical percentage increase in your appropriation (an inflationary increase plus three percent). In very real ways, do it once, and you never stop paying for it. The percentage trap comes from an annoying fact of arithmetic: say your budget is 100. Take a ten percent cut, and you're down to 90. Receive a ten percent increase, and you're only back to 99. In the public mind, you've been made whole – ten percent down, ten percent up -- but you're actually behind where you were when you started.)

Then there's the sensitive, but very real, issue of how reserves are kept. Most people imagine a great big savings account, but that's often inaccurate. In most cases, they're invested in market securities. Put differently, over the last six months or so, the value of our reserves has been dropping like a rock. Just when they're most needed, they're least valuable. “Buy high and sell low” isn't a very good investment strategy, but buffeted by circumstance, that's what we've been doing.

I'm concerned that, when the dust settles, colleges will emerge from this crisis having learned the wrong lessons. When the value of your reserves drops by thirty or forty percent in a single year, it's easy to question the value of saving in the first place. This is doubly true when reserves become political cover for legislators cutting your operating aid. And when using your reserves results in very real percentage decreases to future appropriations as far as the eye can see, the argument for just-in-time budgeting becomes more persuasive by default.

I really hope that doesn't happen, though. Our degree programs are supposed to take two years, and often take more than that. When budgets are on annual cycles – that is to say, less than the normative amount of time to complete a degree program – flexibility is severely limited. Academia is not a just-in-time business. Yes, drawing down reserves in a bad year is a bad idea, but sometimes the alternatives are worse. I'd rather have some tense conversations with the President than leave a bunch of students high and dry in the middle of their degree programs. (To his credit, my President agrees.)

When enrollments are up and appropriations are down, reserves draw natural scrutiny. I just hope we're able to get it right this time.