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The Business Model and Today’s Economy – A Warning to Universities and Investors

The Business Model and Today’s Economy – A Warning to Universities and Investors

As spring is upon us, this is the time deans and higher education vice presidents across the land embark on their yearly budget exercise. Given the rosy economic scenario painted by improving wages, job reports and corporate profits, it would not be out-of-place to start dreaming of expanding their own little circles and propose larger budgets and increased hiring for their respective units – what Warren Buffett has dubbed the institutional imperative. My warning: beware!

As an academician, I have often heard high-ranking officials espouse how public universities should be run using a business model. My own university president is a strong proponent of the idea. The problem is that universities are saddled with challenges most companies don’t have to deal with. For example, let us suppose that demand for your company’s product goes down. To keep your company viable and responsible to stockholders you will cut down on production. Fewer sales means less personnel will be needed leading to workforce reductions. Despite lower revenue, the bottom line is kept steady by lowering expenses for materials and personnel.

Let’s look at what happens at a university. Let’s suppose demand for your product, classes, goes down – i.e., fewer students are enrolled. The cost of materials to run a class is minimal as compared to personnel and physical plant costs. You can’t shut down buildings so your only recourse is personnel reductions. Here is a problem corporations don’t have. They never have a case where the few remaining clients demand that the company put out as much product as before the reduction in demand. But if you have a class of 40 reduced to 30 or even 20 students the university cannot cancel it. These students registered for the class well in advance, before the semester even began. Their schedules and even graduation are predicated on it. If the class does not make, students will be in an uproar and in this day and age they have no trouble letting the world know – online. As the news become viral, the university will gain a bad reputation. It will affect future enrollment. Any whisper of lower enrollment sends chills down high administrator’s backs.

Here is another difference between corporations and higher education providers. Corporation hires are more fungible. If you let go someone all you need is several weeks’ notice. Not so for academia. You may let go of staff personnel that way but instructors are on an academic year contract. University administrators may decide not to renew a contract for a non-tenured instructor after the academic year but they cannot terminate during. That means hiring and budget decisions have to be made well in advance.

Back in 2007 I was in the middle of this dilemma. I was the founder and Chair of the Idaho State University Budget Committee. Our mandate, as I saw it, was to keep abreast of economic developments so we could best advise administrators of “hiccups” leading to reductions in state allocations to higher education. Once those came about, we would provide advice on budget allocations to programs and hiring. Academic hires have to be done months ahead of time so timely input meant looking ahead at least six months. It was within that time frame I warned our higher administration of the coming economic slowdown and real estate problems at the epicenter of the Financial Crisis. That message went unheeded at the time so, for the next couple of years, our committee was saddled with helping the administration muddle through ever diminishing budgets.

The unemployment rate at the time of my warning in 2007 was 4.4%, wages increased by 0.3% for the month and 4.4% for the year, and S&P 500 profits were up 16% for the year. GDP growth was pegged at 3%. Sound familiar? There was plenty of reason to be optimistic and yet, the future did not play out that way. The same will happen this year, although the main factors behind the economic stall will be different.

There is a financial storm developing. This time around, the low-pressure front will be due to demographic forces resulting in a decrease in spending from the 46-50 age group, a group dubbed the peak spenders. There will be a prolonged and marked decrease in consumer spending that will lead to a protracted economic downturn starting this year and lasting as long as 2023.

State general accounts will dwindle as sales tax revenues drop and a rise in unemployment leads to lower personal tax revenues. These are the two main pillars filling state coffers. The two others are real estate and corporate taxes. While real estate tax revenue will remain steady, corporate tax revenue will mirror plummeting corporate profits. The bottom line is that state support for public universities will take a cut and once again these institutions will have the difficult task of managing their budgets by reducing personnel. This is, therefore, no time to be dreaming about expanding departments, but instead, a time of planning for retrenchment.

Administrators should shun the temptation to pass down the buck and use university reserves to meet the immediate challenge. Next year will be no better. In fact, this downhill process will continue to get worse, and as I mentioned above, will last until 2023. University officials will be forced to face the music at some point in time so they might as well brainstorm and come up with a 5- or 6-year plan to deal with the malaise.

The warning goes double for those invested in the stock market. The same forces at work within state finances will also hobble our economy and wreak havoc on corporate profits and prices. Stock portfolios will take a substantial hit. My advice is to heed the current stock market warning. We just went through a correction, but these are only birth pangs of the financial storm ahead. The wise will use any uptick as an opportunity to whittle down stock holdings. There will be many who will mock me now, but when the brunt of the tempest comes you will want to be totally out of the stock market.

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