Friday, March 05, 2010


When Funding Models Collide

Like many colleges, mine has two main funding models operating side by side. The traditional one is the not-for-profit, credit-bearing side. That's what most people think of when they think of college; it's where the full-time faculty are, what our FTE counts are based on, and so forth.

Then there's the 'continuing ed' side, which is supposed to make money for the college. That side doesn't grant academic credit, so it can offer courses of all different lengths and with all manner of content. It includes 'personal enrichment' stuff, like ballroom dancing or French for travelers; 'adult basic education,' which is the non-profit pre-remedial track (including GED prep); and workforce development stuff. The workforce stuff is sometimes initiated by the college, sometimes initiated through regional nonprofits or federal grants, and sometimes done at the request of various companies.

Each subset has its own imperatives, its own logic, and its own tuition levels. And when the boundaries are clear, that works pretty well.

In the case of the workforce stuff, though, the boundaries are getting less clear, and we're starting to run into issues with which we don't have a lot of practice.

For example, an increasing number of companies and granting agencies are asking for the students they sponsor to be able to take credit-bearing traditional classes on a non-credit basis.

The first time a request like that came through, I suggested simply registering for the class on an “audit” basis. Like most colleges, we've had the “audit” option for a long time, even though it doesn't get used much. A student who audits a class is allowed to attend, and to participate in discussion and in-class activities, but does not do any graded work and does not receive academic credit. For example, some local retirees will occasionally audit a foreign language or art class just for the experience.

That answer didn't go over, though, since auditors pay the standard tuition rate, which only covers a portion of the cost of instruction. Since the continuing ed side is supposed to turn a profit, the 'audit' solution didn't work for its funding model.

The audit solution was also never intended for cohorts. It works tolerably well when applied to a student or two here and there, especially in classes that aren't already at capacity. But when a dozen students move through on an audit basis, there's a workload issue for faculty. If those students take up a significant chunk of the enrollment, then that instructor is getting full pay for a class that doesn't count for our FTE's and that doesn't involve grading. A random extra face is one thing, but only having five 'real' students in a class of twenty is something else. Faculty who have to slog through herniating piles of grading would have a reasonable objection to seeing colleagues who don't.

The counterproposal was to have two different tuition rates: one for traditional students, and one for the non-credit students. The non-credit students are not subsidized, so they would actually pay more for less. Think of it as the airline model, in which two passengers next to each other on the same flight could be paying wildly different fares.

Of course, nobody ever accused the airline industry of economic rationality or fairness. (“Phoenix to Columbus by way of Seattle? Why not?”)

Colleagues at other schools that have done this have warned me that invariably, some of the non-credit people later change their minds and decide that they'd like to be awarded credit. That can get sticky, too, since price was attached to credit status, and not every class has a 'testing out' option. You also don't want students using non-credits as end runs around the prerequisite system, or around homework.

So, I'm looking for help from my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen or experienced a successful model of credit and non-credit students taking the same class in non-trivial numbers? How did it work?

I can't see it working. Either the CE people need to register for the course as a credit earning student OR CE needs to develop a full course with similar content for the cohort.

I'm a but unclear as to why an employer would want to pay more for a class -- and why an employer would want to pay for a class that should have a homework element, that their employees don't have to do.
This may be wildly naive and impossible, but when an company or agency asks for "credit" courses, could the question be returned to them as, "What skills do you want your employees to gain from this course?"
Once the skills are identified, could a series of workshops designed to get at those skills (at a cost to the employer, of course) be created for the students in that particular co-hort.

For example, (because I teach comp courses)
An employer says, "I want my students to take ENG 101."
The school replies, "Why English 101? What skills do you feel your employees will gain in the course?

Employer: Our employees are required to generate weekly reports, and we need them to be as clear and concise as possible."

School: To help us cover the cost of instruction, for _(the price would include faculty reimbursement)fee, we can have a faculty member create a series of workshops specifically for your employees.

Then adjunct, or regular faculty members, could 'volunteer'(for extra pay)to lead the workshops. As an adjunct faculty member, I know I'm always looking for ways to earn more money, and I know I'd sign up for something like this, particularly since workshops don't usually involve grading.

I'm sure there are a thousand reasons this wouldn't work. As I said, I'm more than a little naive.
My advice is DON’T DO IT. I spent five years in workforce development. I have dealt with just about every state and federal grant there is, as well as, local employers. I now work in the curriculum side of the house. I can not tell you the number of students who get funded for CE classes who then decide to pursue a curriculum program of study. These students are often very upset when we explain their CE credentials do not count towards a curriculum degree (we are still fighting the rumor CNA is equivalent to the first semester of RN).

In most cases, after a brief explanation of the differences between CE and curriculum, the student understands. I can not imagine how different that conversation would go if the student actually took a curriculum class, but as an audit. CE students auditing curriculum classes will get very ugly very quickly. With a 30% increase in enrollment this year (and the state cutting our budget); we do not have room for our standard curriculum students. We also have students who are getting very crafty in trying to bypass prerequisite requirements. I can see audits as a potential loophole.

If CE students want to take a curriculum class, then they should earn curriculum credit (and you should earn FTE). There are ways to work with federal grants and employers. In our local area, we have an employer who gives a promotion to employees who take our curriculum intro welding class. Many of these students return to complete degrees in machining or industrial maintenance. Everyone benefits.
At many institutions, there are provisions for free auditors. At the CC in our area, for example, senior citizens can audit classes free on a space-available basis.

At the big research state university in our area, there is an explicit written policy that says a faculty member can invite anyone s/he likes to audit a class. S/he gets no workload credit for those auditors, since they are not officially on the books.

Why not compromise. A student who enrolls as a CE-auditor in a class counts as a fractional-workload equivalent student for the faculty member in question. The auditing student may, of course, present some workload for the faculty member, because s/he may come to office hours, ask questions via email, ask for a letter of recommendation down the road, etc.

So how about a rule that says that CE auditors count as 0.25 student equivalent for workload purposes and course-enrollment cap purposes.

You might also want to cap the number of CE-auditors allowed in any one section of a class, because too many auditors will change the dynamic of the class.
"Herniating piles of grading" is good, Dean Dad.

Speaking from California, where I know the rules are weird. We have tried to run separate credit and non-credit courses that meet at the same time with the same teacher, but the logistics were just too confusing so we've discontinued the practice. I believe, though, that one option is to offer a credit course that's paid for entirely by an outside source--we couldn't, of course, use any state funds or claim apportionment for it. Maybe something along those lines?
I say, why not? Once you breach the wall, you might as well let it fall down. Why should we care how a particular course is funded as long as it meets the learning objectives set out for the course. So, if a company wants to pay you to offer English 101 for their employees, I say take their money and teach English 101 to them. When its over, give them all grades.

We have all experienced drastic funding cuts lately, and I am presuming that few of us are able to offer the same number of courses as before with the funding we receive. And, I presume that most of us are facing increasing demand for courses as well. One solution is to offer credit-bearing courses under the CE model. You won't gain any FTE credit this way, but at least the course gets taught. If the course 'fee' is equivalent to the tuition for the same course, then the students aren't hurt much either (there may be some financial aid problems, for example).
I'm sure rules vary, but we grade the work submitted by students who audit a class. The expectation at my college is that a student who is auditing a class will do everything (including homework and exams) that every other student does. The only difference is that their grade does not go on the transcript so they have to ask how they did after that final exam.

I don't know if they count toward the FTE numbers that affect our state funding, but they should count if they take it for grade even if coded in the "not-degree-seeking" category.

But I have a suggestion. Why don't you use this as an opportunity to test fly your ideas about decoupling seat time and credit in an outcomes-based class? It would have to have its own number to separate it from the for-transfer classes of a similar type, at least until you do enough assessment to prove that it is the equivalent course in a different format, but what better way to try those ideas than by applying them to an english or math class requested by the workforce world?
Let everyone know before the class starts or in the first week that the audit class will not count for credit for a degree program, just like the developmental classes do now. Have the student sign a form stating they understood that after counseling by the academic counselor (or equivalent).

At my cc, audit students don't take tests or have homework assignments graded unless the professor agrees to out of the goodness of her heart. Most professors will do so for a dedicated focused hardworking student or two. But they are not required to, so they are not overwhelmed with work.
I agree that the first thing to do is to explore why an organization is looking for credit courses. There is often a presumption that the quality of a credit course is higher, but I have found that when we probe a bit into the underlying needs and raise FERPA issues, the credit requirement is usually dropped in favor of a more customized noncredit solution (noncredit - seriously dislike defining something in terms of what it is *not*). When credit is the only thing acceptable, CE as the manager of corporate relationships coordinates with the appropriate academic dean the hiring of credit faculty to teach the credit course. CE then charges the in-district or out of district tuition rate as appropriate and pays for all the expenses. This allows them the revenue they are charged with generating, but disincentivizes it somewhat as it may just cover costs. Maintaining control of the relationship however usually allows them to develop it into a more standard training arrangement over time.
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