Rick del Rosario

Among the various agenda items set to reach his desk, Gov.-elect Andy Beshear will soon face the prospect of one of the country’s grimmest outlooks when it comes to funding for higher education.

The situation is particularly dire for university administrators and admissions officers, let alone elected officials. Earlier this year, the Grapevine research project had already revealed that Kentucky was one of only five U.S. states to cut public funding of higher education from the 2017-18 fiscal year to 2018-19. More recently, in October, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported that Kentucky actually spent $2,792 less per student in 2018 than the state had spent in 2008.

The phenomenon of increasingly scarce resources is hardly limited to colleges and universities in Kentucky — nor is it limited to Alaska, Minnesota, Ohio and South Carolina, the other four states that reduced higher education funding in 2018-19. According to CBPP, nationwide state for public two- and four-year colleges during the academic year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below that funding’s 2008 level, with the consequences of this development including rising tuition fees as well as low-income families’ struggles to meet those costs.

Further, Ruffalo Noel Levitz documented that nearly a third of four-year private colleges and 7% of four-year public colleges experienced a budget cut for the 2017-18 academic year. Nearly a quarter of public institutions reported that their traditional marketing budgets decreased.

On a parallel track, U.S. universities are grappling with declining international graduate application and first-time enrollment rates. American business schools are experiencing perhaps the most acute crisis, as their applications from international students fell 13.7% in 2019, the Graduate Management Admission Council stated in a recent report.

It is no surprise, then, that Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President Aaron Thompson has described the state’s higher education institutions as “down to the bone.” Can Kentucky’s colleges and universities achieve the institutional progress that the state’s residents are expecting — or even maintain the status quo — when the options of increasing budgets and adding staff are not on the table? 

Clearly, today’s academic institutions need to do more with less. But how?

An instructive paradigm comes from public universities in California, where the 23-campus California State University (CSU) network introduced Cal State Apply — a cloud-based student admissions solution based on UniCAS, a Centralized Application Service (CAS) offered by the education technology provider Liaison International. Within the CSU system, San Francisco State University (SFSU) reported that transitioning to a fully paperless admissions process through Cal State Apply enabled the university to not only spend 10 percent less on supplies and services from 2018 to 2017, but also to save $40,000 on annual labor costs through the realignment of staff responsibilities and reduction of its student assistants from seven to three.

Kentucky State University has also recently capitalized on CAS technology to modernize its admissions process, eliminating substantial administrative burdens and empowering its staff to focus on fulfilling precisely the responsibility that they were meant to all along — frequent, thoughtful, strategic engagement and communication with applicants.

Indeed, in this time of dwindling resources, higher education institutions would be well-served viewing themselves more like businesses who serve consumers — in their case, applicants. Today’s prospective students are savvy consumers who leave no stone unturned in researching the nuances behind which college or university will represent the right fit, and an institution’s top priority in this regard is nurturing its applicants at every step of the journey. 

If admissions offices are overwhelmed by the demands of manual application processing and all things paper, no time exists for that meaningful engagement. Yet the latest advances in educational technology mean that even the most cash-strapped schools can actually obtain the new staff and support that they had believed were out of the question amid the current climate.

In my nearly two decades working in the higher education space, the one constant remains: Resources are finite. It is therefore incumbent upon academic institutions in Kentucky and nationwide to understand that while they largely do not control outcomes on public funding, they do control their own destiny on private commercial decisions. It begins with a comprehensive examination of the full spectrum of a school’s technological products and processes in admissions and enrollment, followed by careful assessment of how these tools can set up an institution for success.

Doing more with less is possible in higher education. It takes vision and a willingness to move on from outdated habits.

Rick del Rosario is associate vice president of enrollment management solutions at Liaison International. He can be reached through Jacob Kamaras at rdelrosario@liaisonedu.com

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