The Evolving Role Of Finance In Higher Education

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Long Island University CFO Christopher Fevola explains how the scope of his role as finance chief has expanded to include non-traditional elements such as recruiting and enrollment, retention, academic programming, talent management, and marketing.

As universities are forced to adapt to numerous economic pressures, the role of a CFO in higher education has likewise adapted, says Christopher Fevola, CFO and university treasurer at Long Island University (LIU), with campuses in Brooklyn and Brookville, New York.

How do you see higher education evolving? What challenges do you face?

The future of higher education is bright and filled with amazing prospects. Advancements in technology, health sciences, innovative cures and virtually every aspect of society provide colleges and universities a unique opportunity to serve as leaders in this transformation. To fully achieve this potential, however, higher education institutions in the United States face numerous challenges – now amplified to an unforeseen degree by Covid-19. As the cost of tuition continues to rise disproportionately to inflation, students increasingly demand a value proposition for their education investment.

Technology is impacting every industry and profession, changing the skillsets required by employers and making continuous upskilling and learning throughout one’s career the norm. Amidst all this disruption, university leaders in higher education face the dilemma of how to evolve, while providing a quality education to students.

LIU, a private institution that serves more than 15,000 students, has uniquely positioned the CFO as a key catalyst in managing this dynamic landscape, and balancing affordability with quality toward a horizon for an industry in flux.

How has your role as a CFO changed as a result?

My role has expanded with a focus on integrating all aspects of planning and resource allocation through collaboration among LIU’s many constituencies, in contrast with the traditional higher education model where these constituencies largely operated in silos. This critical 360-degree involvement ensures that all functions and departments are working together in unison, benefiting the institution at every level, and expediting the timeframe necessary for transformation.

At LIU, the CFO’s scope of involvement has expanded to encompass non-traditional elements such as recruiting and enrollment, retention, faculty communications and governance, academic programming, talent management, marketing and promotions, public relations and fundraising. The most important role I play is making sure that resources are allocated in alignment with our university’s strategic priorities, while at the same time continuously growing and diversifying these resources.

This innovative model has been critical in enabling LIU to provide a high-quality, affordable education for our students. The university has also maintained its annual tuition rate increase at 2% since 2014, throughout a time when the national average rate increases were more than double that amount.

How do you keep college affordable for your students and still give them a high quality education?

First, the university prioritizes resources in academic programs that strengthen our quality and position in the higher education marketplace. For example, our health science programs are very strong, including LIU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, one of only four in the Northeast, along with Cornell, Tufts, and the University of Pennsylvania. We continue investing in new programs that are very high in demand, such as artificial intelligence.

LIU also completes thorough reviews of academic programs and commits to honest, data-informed determinations on whether enough demand still exists to continue allocating resources to any particular program. The idea that higher education is a good investment has come into question more than ever before, and we have a responsibility to ensure this value proposition. We must continue ensuring our programs are in demand, competitive and position students for meaningful careers.

When generating additional resources, it’s important to leverage institutional resources, including fundraising and government grants. The finance office plays an important role in ensuring these resources are utilized appropriately and efficiently.

LIU’s faculty and researchers play an integral role in delivering on the university’s mission and generating research investments through grants from private sources, as well as public entities such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. To support these strategic functions and grow LIU’s national and global brand, we support investment in the labs and institutes so critical to attracting and retaining talent.

As a result of these measures, we have experienced great success during the past seven years in achieving many objectives, including marked improvement in student academic quality, retention and graduation rates, and exceptional financial health and agility. We are delivering competitive high-demand programs that drive growth through quality and improved university rankings, while recruiting a world class-faculty that provides research-based and experiential learning to students.

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