Student Finance System Limits Efficacy of Committee

Students here each pay $428 in tuition costs toward a communal pot of money valued at near $1.3 million. This fund, the Student Activities Fund, is allocated by the Student Finance Committee and distributed by the Office of the Student Treasurer. As two students who have been members of both Student Senate and the OST, we’ve observed some serious issues with Oberlin’s system of student financing. Fortunately, these are problems we can fix.

As it currently stands, SFC allocates around 85–90 percent of the Student Activity Fund. The vast majority of this goes to individual student organizations, while a much smaller portion is used to support student life through other areas like Winter Term grants. In theory, this model should work. If you fund clubs, then you fund all of student life, right? Not quite. Under the current model, SFC fields budget requests and student organizations submit budgets in the spring for the following academic year. Organizations will typically over-budget or request more money than they actually need under the assumption that SFC will reduce their budget. In operation, many clubs end up drafting budgets with events that they don’t know if they’ll actually hold because they’re created up to a year in advance.

What happens then? The majority of money is divided into individual accounts, with a little left over for an ad-hoc geared toward unanticipated expenditures. The ad-hoc pool dries up quickly, and when that happens, students are virtually out of options for planning events not anticipated or budgeted for in their yearly budget. Once the ad-hoc pool is allocated, they’re technically unable to fund an event because all of the funds are budgeted — however, plenty of dollars remain in the total Student Activities Fund. This year, for example, while student organizations were told no more funding was available, plenty of the Student Activity Fund remained. Even as late as April 24, nearly 45 percent of the Student Activities Fund was unspent. That’s over $600,000 that was still available with three weeks left in the semester and just around two months left in the fiscal year.

It’s time for students to start critically engaging with the Student Activity Fund. In Student Senate’s fall referendum, we heard loudly and clearly that students want improved campus spaces for student use, greater mobility around Northeast Ohio, and more campus-wide events. We, students, have the funding resources to do this — it’s the model that is prohibitive.

The current model of funding was developed over 25 years ago and incrementally adjusted without an ordered system for review. Thus, the allocation process is archaic and, we argue, no longer an effective strategy for allocation because it is not responsive to the current needs of the student body. The current budgeting process forces SFC to make many allocation decisions without adequate information relevant to the programming requested during the spring budgeting process.

Currently, budgets are submitted to SFC in early March. SFC spends the remainder of the semester allocating to groups for programming based on several pieces of information: the spending as reported in Banner, which is the school’s financial management software; currently processed forms through the OST; the mid-year report responses submitted by treasurers with budgets; and information provided at a face-to-face meeting with an SFC member. From this information, the committee must determine if the cost associated with each budgeted event is necessary or relevant to the function of the event and the mission of the group. The committee must also consider how likely an event is to occur, and how closely the spending will adhere to the budget. This is a difficult task because there is a considerable amount of time between when budgets are submitted and when events are planned to occur. In that time, group sentiment, goals, membership, and even leadership can change. In fact, they often do. Thus, spending done by student groups differs greatly from what members include on their budgets in the prior year.

So what? The issue becomes that allocations are no longer responsive to the needs of current students and individual groups end up with too much or too little money to sponsor the programming that students request.

Currently, whatever portion of the Student Activity Fund that is not allocated during the spring budgeting process is pooled into an ad-hoc fund, from which students can request funds to host programs throughout the year. In the past, ad-hoc allocations were solely for unforseen programming; recently, however, SFC has removed the “unforeseen” stipulation from the ad-hoc policy. We believe this is a first step toward allocating more efficiently and responsibly because it will allow the committee to fund programs if and when they are fully planned. This would place a higher standard of organization and fiscal responsibility on the part of event planners to budget for what they actually plan to spend. In this model, groups can wait until they have all the details about their event and request exactly what they need when they need it, instead of submitting exorbitant budgets that they likely won’t spend because they believe they won’t have another opportunity to make a request.

As of April 25, 2018, the aggregate amount spent from student groups who received an allocation from SFC for FY18 was $793,009.37, leaving $604,812.46 allocated but unspent with less than a quarter of the school year remaining. Looking at the remaining balances, we wonder what could be done with that money if it were not already divided up and allocated. What events could be sponsored? What buildings could be improved? What student body needs could be addressed? Could ad-hocs have continued? The current allocation process compels students to compete for their share of the Student Activity Fund to host the activities they want to see and collaborate when their allocation falls short. To us, the process needs to be flipped on its head so that event organizers can collaborate in designing and scaling each event, and then receive an allocation that reflects the financial needs associated with hosting quality programming or the current demand for a specific resources that students request in the Senate surveys.

Aggregated, the Student Activity Fund has the potential to address many complaints and concerns of the student body beyond if allocated responsibly. As it is divided, however, the fund cannot solve the big issues that impact campus until the following year when the spring budgeting process begins again. We need a more responsive system, and we can create one. We can make the change ourselves and have the things we want and need.