A Budgetary Commitment: Strategy and Creativity Drive Institutions’ Approaches to Funding Diversity Efforts


State funding cuts to higher education and a growing skepticism of the value of diversity offices by some lawmakers have had both positive and negative effects on colleges and universities’ diversity budgets. While some institutions have had to reassess their efforts and develop more efficient and cost-effective ways of offering programming and supporting the needs of underrepresented students, others have been forced to eliminate such services altogether — as was the case at the University of Tennessee, where the state legislature defunded the university’s diversity office in 2016.

As the need to maintain access to diversity and support services increases, those charged with leading these efforts often struggle with institutional priorities and the availability of funds. A recent national study by executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, titled The Critical First Year: What New Chief Diversity Officers Need to Succeed, surveyed 81 chief diversity officers (CDOs) — most of whom work at colleges — regarding the challenges they face on the job. Fewer than half of respondents said they began their positions with adequate resources to effectively carry out their responsibilities.

Archie Ervin
Archie Ervin

Some believe this finding could be attributed to the fact that so many CDO positions are new — more than half of survey respondents said they were the inaugural CDO at their campus — and these individuals may not yet know what resources they need to do the job effectively at their respective institution. This and other factors make it difficult to assess whether diversity offices specifically are receiving sufficient funds to drive these efforts, says Archie Ervin, PhD, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE).

“I do know that the resources allocated to support diversity offices range from modest to substantial investments,” he says. “Many factors account for this vast range, such as institution size and type — public versus private — and scope of responsibilities, to name a few.”

Budget cuts and politics aside, many higher education experts argue that colleges and universities — no matter their financial situation — have an obligation to ensure the retention and success of their students, especially those who are most vulnerable. “Institutions, regardless of their individual resources, should see helping students, particularly underserved students who are disproportionately at danger of dropping out, as an investment,” says Julie Ajinkya, PhD, vice president for applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). She believes this short-term investment “bears out in long-term gain — not only for the institution, but also for the students they graduate into their surrounding communities, [which] aggregate into our national economy.”

Ervin believes that the vast majority of institutions see the value in these efforts, which he says is evidenced by the growing number of senior-level diversity officer positions in higher education in recent years. But maintaining support services, in particular, which often benefit racial and ethnic minority and low-income students most, requires creativity and collaboration to work around budget limitations. While it is public institutions that most often find themselves in this situation, private colleges are also being forced to do more with less.

Sonja Feist-Price
Sonja Feist-Price

“Over the years, with some of the budget cuts that many institutions are experiencing, I think that has necessitated [that we] think about creative ways to have the necessary resources to provide optimal services and resources for our students,” says Sonja Feist-Price, vice president for institutional diversity at the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington.

As UK has proven, however, this challenge has made the university more efficient and effective. “In the last 10 years roughly, state appropriations have been reduced from about $335 million annually to a little less than $270 million this year,” says Roy Blanton, a university spokesperson. “[This] means we have to work smarter and even more strategically.” Because of its size — UK enrolls 30,000-plus students — and the fact that it’s a public institution, he says UK has been able to “leverage resources and people from a variety of backgrounds to [continue to] create … a community of belonging for all people.”

Kent Barnds

In contrast, Augustana College is a small private school in Rock Island, Ill., with a student enrollment of approximately 2,600. Kent Barnds, executive vice president for external relations, says that Augustana’s commitment to the success of each student helps ensure that the college continues to align resources to support this work that is always in transition.

Evelyn S. Campbell
Evelyn S. Campbell

“As student needs change, … our funds have reflected those changes, and certainly the diversity of our student population, the diversity of the world in which [they] are going to be entering, all [reflect] how we spend our money,” says Evelyn S. Campbell, PhD, dean and vice president of student life at Augustana. “I think because of our size, we’re able to be quicker at recognizing what students’ needs and goals are and making adjustments. You can do that when you’re smaller.”

Although they are very different in both their makeup and size, Augustana and UK demonstrate that a lot can be done with fewer resources when diversity and inclusion are made a strategic priority.

Integration and Realignment of Resources
At Augustana, Campbell says diversity and inclusion are woven into everything the college does, as it is one of four platforms in the institution’s strategic plan. “Our board of trustees buys into [this]; the president of the college is committed, the deans and vice presidents are committed [as well as] our directors, all the way down to our staff,” she says. “So from the very top of the institution, it’s a commitment.”

Serving their students, Campbell says, means not just providing diversity-specific programming, but also ensuring that diversity is an element of everything they do — from events and initiatives to policies and practices. This “integration,” as she calls it, means that diversity and inclusion are never an afterthought, which makes ensuring proper resources to drive these efforts easier.

“Money has flowed in different directions, but … integration is how we are leveraging and getting more out of the money that we have,” says Campbell.

By remaining alert to the changing needs of its students, Barnds says Augustana is able to shift resources to better align with their needs when appropriate.

“It doesn’t necessarily always represent new investment; sometimes it represents a realignment … to ensure that we’re serving today’s student,” explains Barnds. “We’re looking at the needs of our campus, its changing composition, but most importantly, we’re looking at what we want our students to have in regard to skills and experiences when they graduate, and we recognize that realigning our investment, whether it’s curricular or co-curricular, to ensure those outcomes is important.”

For example, Campbell says that the Office of Multicultural Student Life has experienced significant growth over the last three years, expanding from one staff member to three. The funds to cover this expansion came from cutting some academic support on the administrative side and possibly one faculty position, she explains. This evaluation of resources and need, she adds, is something the college engages in on a yearly basis.

UK students participate in the campus’s Social Justice Week by creating sidewalk art
UK students participate in the campus’s Social Justice Week by creating sidewalk art

“We’re doing that all the time to make sure that the human resources as well as the financial resources reflect the needs that we’re trying to meet,” explains Campbell. “So over the years, the faculty sometimes has grown, … and Multicultural Student Life, International Student Life, and Disability Services are in a growth mode right now, while some administrative positions are shrinking in order to fund that.”

In 2016, to further assess its diversity and inclusion work, Barnds and a few of his colleagues created a Diversity Efforts Inventory to “provide the Augustana community a sense of [its] efforts, seen and unseen, to become a more diverse and inclusive institution,” as the document states. It lists all of the college’s efforts — across every department and office — related to the recruitment, retention, and support of students from racial and ethnic minorities. The inventory has not only demonstrated to senior leadership how well the college is serving students of color, but has also helped ensure that Augustana is collaborative and cost-effective in its distribution and utilization of funds.

A student holds a sign as part of a Social Justice Week project.

“It’s allowed us to identify if there are gaps or things that maybe we should stop doing or start doing,” Barnds says, adding that the inventory also tells a story about the impact of Augustana’s investments. “If we go back 15 years, one out of every 10 of our students was a student of color. Today, we’re approaching one out of every four. So there’s a good story in the Diversity Efforts Inventory that reinforces where our resources are being invested.”

Ajinkya at IHEP believes that evaluation of this kind and the collection of data regarding a program’s effectiveness are key to ensuring that students are being supported and that funds are being well spent. “We always suggest that an assessment [be] designed at the outset of a program,” she says. “All strategies aimed at closing equity gaps should be data-informed and incorporate ongoing assessment. Institutions need to know their numbers to identify where to devote resources and ultimately close gaps.”

As a private institution, Augustana is largely tuition- and fee-driven. But it also has “friends and alumni who support the college generously,” Barnds says. “Certainly, our alumni, many of whom are employers and work in the real world, also embrace this orientation toward being a welcoming community,” he adds, “and I have to imagine that connects to their generosity and their support of Augustana because they know how important it is in their own organizations.”

Strategic Funding Approaches
Recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion in all of its work, UK has not only designated it as one of five strategic priorities, but has also integrated it into the other four areas. But with significant state budget cuts over the last 10 years, the university has had to develop more innovative ways to ensure diversity programming and support for underrepresented students.

“We realize that belonging and inclusion are really important … because we know that when students are not engaged, sometimes they’re less likely to be successful, they’re less likely to be retained,” says Feist-Price.

UK has been able to avoid cuts to diversity initiatives and events facilitated by its Office of Institutional Diversity (OID) thanks to a $6 inclusive excellence fee that every student pays at the beginning of each semester. “We generate about $150,000 each semester in student fees for inclusive excellence programming, and that’s on top of the resources that we already get from the university for our office, our staff, and our programs,” Feist-Price explains. “With those fees, we haven’t had to minimize our programming. If anything, we’ve been able to expand some of the opportunities that exist.”

The student fees fund UK’s Inclusive Excellence Grant, which provides students the opportunity to compete for resources to develop and host diversity programming. Every spring and fall, OID has a call for proposals, and individuals submit an application to be considered for an award — the largest of which is $25,000.

Not only must proposed projects concentrate in some way on diversity, but they must also be inclusive of different student populations; demonstrate collaborative partnerships between a variety of groups, offices, and student organizations; serve as models for replication across the campus; and expand the success of existing programs at UK, according to the university’s website. A committee of faculty, staff, and students reviews all proposals to ensure that a project has considered each of these areas. “At every turn, we’re working to make sure that students are working collaboratively across multiple identities, so they’re partnering with diverse groups and they’re targeting diverse groups in their programming,” explains Feist-Price.

These requirements mean that students must work together with people who are different from them to determine an area of need or interest in order to develop an event. “They communicate with their peers and come up with ideas. They have an opportunity to write a proposal, advertise and carry out the event, and then they have to report back on their accomplishments,” she says. “I think that’s why this process and these inclusive excellence funds are so important, because they celebrate students’ ability to work collaboratively with others and allow them to think about the ways in which diversity and inclusion show up and how they want them to be celebrated.”

To both hold students accountable for meeting requirements and demonstrate the return on investment the grants provide the campus community, OID has groups submit a report following the conclusion of a project. Feist-Price says the office then “advertises the outcomes associated with the grants” for all to see.

Because the grants are made possible through student fees, UK requires that the funds be used to meet their specific needs. However, this can also mean training teachers to improve students’ engagement and learning in the classroom, says Feist-Price. This fall, some of these dollars will be used to host a Faculty Learning Community, which will bring together up to 15 faculty members to learn about best practices and develop an understanding of some of the ways in which they can affect students’ learning “as it relates to [them] engaging each other and learning about inclusive pedagogy,” Feist-Price explains.

Beyond Inclusive Excellence Grants, she says that OID’s funding is sufficient for meeting the needs of students. “In my current position, I have never felt that if there was a need to do something impactful for our constituents — whether it’s faculty staff, or students — that our resources are not available to do that,” she says.

In terms of supporting underrepresented students and faculty, Blanton says UK has other efforts in place to ensure the proper allocation of resources. This includes public-private partnerships; an increase in the number of academic advisers; funding — which was doubled last year — to recruit and retain underrepresented minority faculty; and the UK Leads program, which provides more institutional aid to students with unmet financial need.

Sustaining Programs and Support
At IHEP, much of the emphasis is on researching and providing resources, best practices, and examples of innovative support services for higher education institutions to implement on their campuses. For example, it publishes online postsecondary guidebooks that offer information on supports in a variety of areas: academic, career, personal, and financial.

“These tactical guidebooks are all very focused on highlighting case studies of successful institutional and community leadership that are … the vanguards of personal or student supports in the postsecondary system,” Ajinkya explains. “We know institutions that are trying to do good and design interventions for students with the resources they have. We want to figure out what institutions and other community stakeholders can do to help improve student chances of succeeding in the postsecondary system.”

Increasing students’ chances for success doesn’t always mean additional funding, but it does often require creativity, an open mind, assessment, and partnerships, she says. “Institutions can do quite a bit as is, and it really takes them reaching outside of their institutional walls and forming partnerships,” says Ajinkya.

To truly enact long-term, deep-seated change, however, she believes that all efforts around diversity, inclusion, and support for underrepresented students must be addressed at a higher level.

“To pursue sustainable change …, [this] usually means that there is some sort of policy lever that you can pull, which might be at the institutional level, it might be at the state system level, and it might be at the state governmental level — it could also scale up to the federal level,” says Ajinkya. “In many cases, if we want these programs to really sustain themselves and have a lasting [effect], we have to figure out how to enshrine them in policy.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information about IHEP, visit ihep.org.