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?