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Planning for the Unknown and for the Future: What Community Colleges Can Learn from COVID

In early 2020, COVID-19 changed our lives forever. A year and a half later, the world may finally be moving toward a fragile sense of new normalcy, yet the scars, caused or exacerbated by COVID, are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

In light of declining state funding, lean budgets, and dwindling enrollment, many community colleges have chosen to forgo administrative priorities, instead devoting precious resources to ever-changing student needs. During these times, CFOs and controllers have become painfully aware of the impact of maintaining a college’s books and records with drastically reduced staff capacity. COVID-19 has also brought to light the importance of succession planning.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that colleges and universities closed out 2020 with continued job losses, resulting in a 13-percent drop since February 2020. Since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, the U.S. Labor Department estimates that American academic institutions have shed a net total of at least 650,000 workers, according to preliminary, seasonally adjusted figures released in February 2021. Put another way, for every eight higher education employees employed in February 2020, at least one had lost or left that job 10 months later. COVID has caused key employees to be out for extended periods of time with little to no advance notice and accelerated retirement for many long-term employees.

So, what lessons have we learned from all of this?

  • Well-documented processes – Having experienced staff can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, operations tend to run smoothly, bringing a sense of security that all is well, and eliminating the need to document all that has become second nature to the most seasoned employees. When these seasoned employees take an unexpected leave, however, an institution might find itself vulnerable if an employee’s in-depth knowledge of processes is not well documented. Lack of documented process has left many individuals who are filling in for someone else in a precarious position in 2020. Community colleges that struggled well before the pandemic due to reduced accounting resources were disproportionately affected by lack of documented processes and procedures when the pandemic put unprecedented stress on their operations. The next pandemic could be around the corner so consider the benefits of investing in documentation today. Whether it is by devoting internal resources or utilizing an outside consultant’s knowledge and expertise, take the opportunity to build a stronger business office today so you are better equipped for the challenges of tomorrow.
  • Cross-training – While having an appropriate staffing complement is critical when leading operations in a chaotic environment, cross-trained staff help mitigate the initial shock of an unforeseen departure or a disability leave. Crossed-trained staff following well-documented processes give a community college Controller or CFO the peace of mind and with that, the ability to focus on tackling the unknown and unforeseen, while the “day-to-day” is well-managed.
  • Technology matters – Old, antiquated systems that can only be accessed on-site present a significant threat to a community college’s ability to be flexible. When operations must pivot on a moment’s notice and access changes from in-person to remote, a well-functioning information technology (IT) system can be one of the keys to success for a community college. If you were one of the fortunate community colleges with strong IT systems, consider the strain COVID put on your systems. Hybrid and fully remote methods of delivering instructions and engaging with your employees are here to stay. Having an IT professional to scan for system vulnerability, additional risks and opportunities to protect student, employee and college data is yet another key to success in the future.
  • Knowing when to call for help – Collaboration is a term that is not only used in the classroom, but actively practiced in the administrative offices of community colleges. Community college business officers across institutions have connected for years, seeking regulatory guidance, and joining together for advocacy purposes. Why not reach out to a fellow community college business officer and seek staffing resources, when an unprecedented need arises? Or reach out to a former Controller or CFO? Asking for help doesn’t have to stop with one’s peers. Reaching out to your auditor or trusted business advisor is yet another way to securely manage operations.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic is to remind us of the importance of ‘Plan B.’ Consider what your community college learned in the last 18 months. Is it time to review the list of priorities for fiscal 2022? We are here to help.

The information and advice we are providing for this matter relates to COVID-19 legislative relief measures. Because legislative efforts are still ongoing, we expect that there may be additional guidance and clarification from regulators that could modify some of the advice and information provided to you, after the conclusion of our engagement. We therefore make no warranties, expressed or implied, on the services provided hereunder.