Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fees for Low-Enrolled Classes

A new correspondent writes:

It’s that time of year when the budget heads to the budget committee for approval. The CFO of our community college is rightfully concerned with getting it as balanced as possible. In Oregon, like much of the country, our community college is facing declining enrollment (we think we’ve reached the nadir but who knows?). We’re also looking at a possible 15 – 20% statewide bump with the Oregon Promise free college program. Our particular college is a small rural CC with a large percentage of our community below the poverty line and we don’t anticipate a student increase of 20% in this parts.

In our previous fiscal biennium we drastically cut services and staff to make up a very large deficit. No-one wanted to repeat that this year even though we have more budget shortfalls looming.

The CFO came up with a plan.

Instead of canceling sections that didn’t meet our 12 student threshold, we would ask students in those low –enrolled sections if instead of canceling that section they would be willing to pay $150 to keep that section running. For example, we go to the 7 students enrolled in the class and propose to them before dropping the section: we’ll not drop this section but you have to pay $150 above regular tuition to keep it. The CFO figures this keeps students in classes that they wanted, and helps us minimize the number of sections which lose money for the college.

The CFO called it the low-enrollment class fee.

AS you might imagine, a vigorous campus-wide debate ensued. Faculty wasn’t crazy about teaching to a possible section of 4 or 5 students (we all realized that not all students would buy into the extra fee –thus reducing our scenario from 7 students to, say, 4 or 5.) Student services saw extra work in trying to keep those sections open, contacting the low-enrolled students, etc. and not necessary saving student services time and effort in not dropping sections as purported by the CFO. The student government, at the behest of the CFO, did a survey which found most students didn’t mind the extra fee, but they also didn’t mind an across the board tuition hike (the survey also found that only 14% of students were affected by dropped sections.) The leadership team - CFO, CAO, IT Chief, and president - were so divided they didn’t provide any definitive direction.

Some of us (the CAO included) found the proposal as going against the mission of community colleges – education opportunities for all in our community – as this low-enrolled fee would hit hardest those who couldn’t adjust their work or life schedules to enroll in a different section.

All of us applauded the CFO for creative thinking. Some thought he was overreaching his responsibilities. The board, after another vigorous board meeting, eventually voted for increased fees and raising tuition across the board. That’s what will go forward as a recommendation to the budget committee.

I write to you because of your last post asking about state and local funding. What do you think of this strategy of low enrollment fees?  

I have to admit I’ve never heard that one before.

From an institutional perspective, it’s both brilliant and horrible.  The genius of it is that it accurately reflects institutional costs.  Smaller classes are more expensive to run; charging more for them helps to offset that.  Whether the actual dollar figure is right or not, I’ll leave to your CFO, but I get the concept.

And from a student’s perspective, it could look like a premium service.  Regular classes cost x, but first-class classes (?) cost x plus y.  In return, the students are likely to expect more attention and feedback, in much the same way that first-class passengers on a flight expect to board first and get better snacks.  

That said, though, the horrible outweighs the brilliant, at least for me.  

At the implementation level, for instance, it could be a bear.  We typically report attendance as of the tenth day of the semester, which means that for a class on the borderline, students wouldn’t know the cost until they’d been in it for two weeks.  At that point, their entire financial aid package might have to be redone, which is not a simple or quick process.  For students who are paying their own way, they may or may not face an additional, unexpected cost two weeks into the term, at which point it’s too late to pick up another class.  That’s a significant gamble. The add/drop period could get considerably weirder.  I’d also worry about incentives; for a class near the cutoff, you’ve essentially created a financial incentive for students to get other students to sign up, even if only for a week.  Students will figure that out in about a nanosecond, and at least some of them can be expected to act on it.  At that point, you’re creating churn for the sake of churn.  Given that “performance funding” punishes churn, that could turn out to be a self-inflicted wound.

I’d also expect to see pushback from the disciplines that tend to run the larger classes that have historically cross-subsidized the smaller ones.  Intro to Psych sections typically run full and relatively large by local standards, and they don’t require labs. The profits those sections generate help offset the losses from smaller classes, whether in the upper levels of Psych or, more typically, in allied health, studio art, or languages.  Faculty on each side of that exchange typically believe that they’re getting the short end of the stick -- the Psych faculty complain about having the most students, while the faculty in other fields mutter quietly about multiple-choice tests -- but there’s typically a relatively even distribution of dissatisfaction.  We have lab fees for certain courses, but those are generally understood to cover “consumables” -- lab specimens, chemicals, etc. -- rather than labor.  

But if the smaller ones start pulling their own weight economically, I could see the larger ones starting to question why they have to run so big.  If the burden of the small-class subsidy has shifted from the Psych department to the students, I would expect the Psych department to start pressing for relief.  That could quickly consume any economic gain, thereby defeating the purpose.

One could argue, of course, that smaller classes all around will benefit the students, and will pay off over time in better success rates, even if at higher cost to students.  But if you want to move closer to the old “private liberal arts college” model, which is essentially what that is, then you’re going to have to come to grips with the economics of that model.  Judging by the economic precarity of most small private liberal arts colleges outside the top twenty or so, I’d be wary of emulating that model.  The tuition-driven ones are riding the ragged edge of disaster.  The affluent ones are fine, but they have endowments and fundraising capacities far beyond what any community college could reasonably expect, especially if they’re starting from a low base.

If you’re comfortable with increasing student costs in order to drive higher quality, I’d go with the much simpler and more straightforward route of increasing tuition.  If the headline number is politically prohibitive, I’d follow the airlines and hide the increase in mandated fees.  (“Oh, you have luggage?  That’s extra!”)  Premium charges for small classes would be culturally foreign, and would create both back-office nightmares and severe political consequences.  A straightforward tuition increase is much easier to implement, and more transparent.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way?  Could small class premiums actually work?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.