Beyond Spreadsheets: It's Time to Rethink Budget and Planning Tools

By Chris McNamee posted 03-07-2023 10:04 AM


Over the last three years, pandemic-induced stresses on higher education have uncovered the impacts of an outdated budget planning process that’s still prevalent throughout higher education. While most colleges and universities quickly pivoted to offer new learning modalities and ensure the continuation of operations remotely in response to COVID-19, financial planning analysts had a more difficult time adapting to change. Many of them are still using spreadsheet-based systems that may have adequately met their needs for years. But meeting current conditions requires a shift in philosophy and scope for budgeting and planning. Institutional financial planning and analysis needs to move beyond the finance domain and capture all areas of enterprise planning and analysis.

For most institutions, the annual budget planning process is still anchored on systems of spreadsheets that lack version control, reducing agility and increasing risk. Institutions report that hundreds of spreadsheets can be produced during a typical budget cycle. This creates institutional risk in managing those files and ensuring data moves between them accurately with every update and iteration. The process is also incredibly manual: Calculating changes can take days or weeks.

The typical electronic paper chase designed around Excel and focused on revenue allocations and expense controls also delivers little insight into an ever-changing financial landscape. Moreover, the process often ignores other factors such as future enrollment, tuition volatility, workforce planning, and grants commitments and planning that need to be considered to develop fundamental insights and multi-scenario predictions for meeting the challenges higher education is facing today.

Modern budget and planning tools offer more robust processes and workflows, enhanced reporting and analytics capabilities, faster scenario planning, direct integration with financial and other systems, and the ability to support these processes sustainably, thereby reducing institutional risk by not relying on individuals and spreadsheets.