Thursday, April 23, 2009

What the Stimulus Looks Like From Here

(Disclaimer: as I understand it, the Federal stimulus package is run through the states, so each state's version of this may be different. I'm writing about my own state; your mileage may vary.)

With the state budget suffering badly from declining tax revenues, the Federal stimulus money directed towards K-12 and higher education is coming at a wonderful time. In very short order, we shifted from relatively panicky discussions of layoffs to more thoughtful discussions of long-term restructuring. To my mind, this is clearly to the good; we're likely to make better decisions when we have time to include everybody in them, and if we really get lucky, we may be able to effect long-term savings through actual efficiencies, rather than dilutions or work speedups (stuffing classes fuller, say). And I don't mind admitting that I don't want to lay anybody off. Been there, done that, no thanks.

In my state, although K-12 has claimed a generous portion of the money, there's still a substantial amount left over for higher ed. The amount we've been quoted by the state for next year is more than I had dared hope.

That's the good news.

The rest of the news isn't bad, but it's complicated.

At the Federal level, the stimulus money has been specified as lasting two years. It has been earmarked for education, though states can apply for waivers to that. My state has indicated to us that we should only count on the first year; depending on the state of general revenues next year, it may or may not ask the Feds for permission to divert second-year money from education to, say, aid to cities and towns. Based on current projections, absent a neck-snappingly vigorous economic recovery, we're looking at one or two years of stimulus-funded decent numbers, followed by a drop off a cliff.

In other words, it makes no sense for us to use stimulus money to hire permanent (or tenure-track) employees, since the funding will go away in a year or two. (Some of us happen to believe that hiring people is the very definition of economic stimulus, but never mind that.) The directive on campus, which we're working on developing an inclusive process to actually execute, is to treat the stimulus money as a grant. For our purposes, we're assuming that the purpose of the grant is to position the college to better weather difficult times in the future. So the kind of spending that would be privileged is the kind that involves an upfront cost, but that leads to long-term savings or improved efficiency.

Those tend not to be the first things people on campus think of when asked “what should we do with this windfall?” They tend to think first of restoring cuts, of adding to what's already here, and of hiring. Those are all fun in the moment, but they'd make the fall off the cliff that much harder when it happens.

Instead, we're starting to discuss relatively unsexy stuff, like software for room scheduling. Yes, it's boring, but an upfront investment in the software would probably lead to increased operating efficiency over time, putting us in a slightly better position than we'd otherwise be in when the stimulus money goes away. So far, we haven't done it, since we haven't had the loose cash at any given moment to absorb the upfront cost. Now, it may make sense.

We're also looking at using some of it for upgrading the campus wifi, so we can meet increasing 'hybrid' course delivery needs with netbook carts, rather than fixed 'smart' classrooms. The idea there is that it's far cheaper, over time, and improves access for everybody. It also means that we don't have to make existing classrooms clunky with lots of fixed equipment; when you need the carts, you wheel them in. When you don't, you have the basic classroom, so students don't have to look over monitors. It won't solve every need, but it will work well – and cheaply – for many.

And yes, there's professional development. If budgets are going to get tight in a year or two, all the more reason to improve the existing employees' skills now, while we can. Best case, some carefully-defined professional development leads to improved student performance and retention, which puts us in a better position over the long term (and serves our mission nicely).

So far, popular press treatments seem to have subsumed stimulus money under 'avoiding layoffs' or 'general aid.' There's some of that, but it's better to use what amounts to a breather to position a college strategically, rather than to just postpone the inevitable by a year or two. For once, we actually have the slack in the budget to stomach the upfront costs of some long-term investments that we probably should have made by now anyway. It's not as satisfying immediately as hiring faculty, but if it prevents laying off even more faculty in a couple of years, I'll take it.