Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Consortia Make My Brain Hurt

IHE had an absolutely brilliant piece (not being sarcastic) yesterday about including the registrar's office in many academic policy and program decisions. The administrator in me says “Oh God, Yes!” Failing to look to the very real legal and bureaucratic parameters of possibility can only lead to tears.

My cc currently participates in a few 'consortial' agreements with other cc's, and is now working on a few with a nearby four-year college. Consortia appeal to colleges when enrollments in a given area are relatively small and the costs of a program relatively high; if the costs can be spread between institutions, the thinking goes, then students at both will have access to a program that otherwise wouldn't exist, since neither college would be willing to foot the entire bill itself. As the technologies for distance learning have developed and become more sophisticated, it has become easier, logistically, to assemble one viable section of a course over multiple campuses. (I even saw one large public k-12 district do this with its two high schools. Pooling students from each, it was able to run a single section of Latin.)

So goes the theory, and there's some truth to it.

Behind the scenes, though, consortia are unholy messes. And I say that as somebody actively involved in building a new one.

Some of the hurdles are relatively obvious, and to be expected: transportation costs for faculty, transportation arrangements for students, lab or specialized facilities, and the ever-present attempts at cost-shifting. (“Weren't you going to pay for that?”)

Some of them are less obvious from the outside, but very real in practice. Say that colleges A and B have a consortial arrangement for a program in Obvious Studies. (It's the dumbed-down version of Profgrrrrl's 'complexification studies.') For certain courses, students from college A trundle over to college B, where they're taught by a professor from college B, among students from both. A student from A is accused of cheating on an exam. Whose judicial process do you use? Which Dean of Students keeps the record on file? Where is the penalty assessed? Or a student from A has a seizure in class. Whose health services office has the student records? Who is liable?

It gets harder when you put together arrangements between schools with different degree levels. Right now I'm working on an agreement with a nearby four-year college through which our graduates will take a mix of our gen ed courses and Neighbor's upper-level discipline-specific courses, almost all taught here. It's great for my cc, since it offers our students a way to finish most of a four-year degree without leaving the geographic area, and the gen ed courses count towards our numbers (so we get the tuition, the weighted state aid, etc.). It's great for Neighbor College, since it needs enrollment in those upper-level classes, and it won't incur the facilities cost. If all goes well, everybody wins.

There are several catches, though. The registrar's area is already having nightmares. Our internal ERP system is based on the assumption that we track students until they graduate. Students are coded by curriculum, so we can run 'degree audits' (that is, see which courses they still need to graduate, which obviously depends on which degree they're seeking) based on the assumption that graduation is the end point. Once a student has graduated, the transcript is closed. What do we do with a student who graduated, but is still taking gen eds with us pursuant to the consortium? How do we transcript that? Nothing in our current ERP system allows us to do this, except by manual override. Manual overrides are fine if you're talking about three or four people. If the program takes off like we want it to, though, this system would rapidly become unsustainable.

The financial aid offices are also running into issues. Depending on the mix of courses a student takes in a given semester (two with us and three with them, or vice versa), the tuition will vary. Aid awards are typically determined far in advance of the semester of enrollment. Decisions on which classes to cancel are typically made very late, when it becomes clear which sections have reached the magic number and which haven't. So if a student plans tentatively to do, say, three with us and two with them, then has to switch the proportion for whatever reason, the financial aid will either fall short (wreaking havoc with the student) or come in too high (wreaking havoc with reporting agencies).

One of the benefits of having worked at Proprietary U when I did was that I was immersed in nuts-and-bolts issues like this for several years. Having been through that wringer, I knew enough to anticipate some of these questions when the idea of the latest consortium came up. Before heading over to Neighbor College to put ink to paper, I gave a 'heads up' to the student services area, and actually convened a meeting that included financial aid, registrar, health services, and the like. (I dragged along my long-suffering department chair for the relevant area, who spent the entire meeting looking vaguely nauseous.) The meeting went for about an hour and a half, almost entirely spent talking about dummy curriculum codes for the ERP system, disciplinary jurisdiction, transcripting, parking, and the like. The academic part was the easy part – the logistics were the hard part. I'm sure we'll discover wrinkles nobody thought of yet, but at least we have some idea of the implications of what we're going to sign.

Most of the behind-the-scenes support systems at colleges have been built on the assumption – mostly true, historically – that individual colleges are essentially self-contained. Transfer students are nothing new, but they've usually involved clean breaks – leave college A, go on to college B. As part of the effort to provide access to a broad array of programs while still keeping costs in line, though, we've had to move increasingly to shared delivery, which we were never really built to do. The technology is there, but the policies largely aren't. And that's why consortia make my brain hurt.