Class size, students play roles in budget


There are a few words in the English language that seem sure to make any high-powered executive at least a little nervous. Few like to hear the words “sex scandal” or “high profile criminal case,” and the reasons for this should be obvious. However, a much less obvious word that is just as nerve racking as the others is the word “budget.”

Money is simply one of those sticky issues that no one wants to discuss. Budgets are complex, confusing, and few people seem to have a complete understanding of them. But what if a student starts to wonder why their department seems so underfunded? The CSUN budget may provide the answers.

So, how does CSUN’s budget system work? According to a presentation from the provost’s office, it starts with the budget set by the governor and the state assembly. Based on how much money in the state budget is allocated for the CSU system, money is then given to the Chancellor’s Office, which then distributes money to the various CSUs. The university then distributes money to Academic Affairs, which then distributes money to the various colleges. These colleges then give out money to the various “units,” which include departments and things such as the library and Developmental Writing and Mathematics.

How much funding each unit is given is dependent on a number of factors. Of these, one of the major factors is the number of Full-Time Equivalent Students enrolled. If there are more students, then more money is needed. For instance, the English department, which had one of the highest number of FTES at 993 for the 2004-05 academic year, also had the largest expenditures for the year at $5,395,844, more than $500,000 more than the next highest department, mathematics. The women’s studies department, which had one of the lowest number of FTES in the university at 155 for the 2004-05 school year, also had one of the lowest expenditures in that same academic year, $647,346.

“We have been doing well,” said Dr. Nayereh Tohidi, chair of the women’s studies department. “I think everyone likes to get more money, but we are not in a deficit.”

FTES are not the only measure of how much each department needs, though. The psychology department had the highest number of FTES in the university in the 2004-05 academic year at 1,138, but spent almost $1.9 million less than the English department. The psychology department spent less money because it has more lecture classes that have large class sizes, up to 150 students per class. The English department, however, has mostly smaller classes of about 22 students, which requires more teachers and, hence, more money.

“Over 90 percent of the budget is tied up in salaries,” said Diane Stephens, director of academic resources.

This is because the business of teaching is mostly in the labor of staff and faculty, Stephens said. While there are expenses involving purchasing and running equipment, most of the cost, all but about $72,000 of the total $5.4 million in the English department, is in teaching the students and paying faculty for their time doing it.

Another big factor that determines how much money a department will start the academic year with is their “base” or “continuing” budgets. Based on the history of the unit’s FTES, the university will base how much they need for the next year on how much they spent last year, adding in or taking away money depending on the unit’s growth.

“A department tends to have base funding that relates to its regular faculty and staff, for the most part, and then operating expenses,” Stephens said.

In addition to this type of historical budgeting, adjustments are also made for base changes and “one-time” expenses, such as special programs or purchasing items or equipment. How much the department actually spends, however, can differ dramatically.

Every year, each department projects how many FTES they think they will have for the next academic year. Some beat their targets and some miss their targets. For this reason, the budget is always made with some “wiggle room.” For instance, departments can use the money they were going to spend on a staff member who has left on other things, such as student assistants or new computers, Stephens said.

“People find ways within their own budgets to manage as effectively as possible,” Stephens said. “They want to number one ensure that they have the service levels they need for their area, but sometimes there are savings as well.”

Starting in the mid-1990s, the CSU system moved away from budgets that calculated the expense for each and every item and distributing money specifically for that item. Instead, each university is given $9,100 for each FTES enrolled in the university, which it then distributes to each college. Because of this, one department may have more money than they need. If another department ends up needing money, the college can move the money from one college to another. This same flexibility extends all the way up to the Chancellor’s Office.

“The university receives, for the most part, base level funding,” Stephens said. “Then the Chancellor’s Offices, for instance, might give us one-time project money. In the same way the university is able to do the same thing.”

Another measure placed on the departments is the number of unmet demands in that department for a specific semester. Women’s studies had an unmet demand of 249 for the Fall 2006 semester, compared to their FTES of 193 for the same semester. Psychology also had a particularly high-unmet demand at 1,067, compared to their FTES of 1,228. The lowest unmet demand was in the College of Education, which had an unmet demand of 201 for their 2,078 FTES. But the unmet demand figure is not perfect.

“If you have a student who is already taking 15 units, and that’s all they wanted to take, you might, in fact, have found that they generated unmet demand,” said William Jennings, the dean of the College of Business and Economics. “Might be one of the classes they tried to enroll in, at one particular time, wasn’t available. So they don’t get in, but then they found another class they wanted to take to give them the 15th unit. And they still have unmet demand, but they really didn’t want to take anymore classes.”

“It’s kind of a hard thing to forecast,” said Laila Asgari, manager of academic resources in the College of Arts, Media, and Communication. “It becomes a difficult thing, sometimes, to try to gauge, how to plan. And that’s one of the biggest challenges we have.”