Tuition Revenue in Higher Education – What’s the Real Cost of Offering Degree Completion Programs?

The landscape of higher education has changed significantly in the past thirty years. In the past, tuition revenue was driven primarily by traditional academic programs. A student would graduate from high school and move on to a college or university. They would attend class full-time for four years in order to earn their bachelor’s degree. Students registered for courses twice a year, were billed and paid their tuition. Anticipated revenue from these students was relatively stable across their four years of attendance. This stable source of revenue made budgeting and planning for the future an easily manageable process. Higher education, for the most part, was an uncomplicated operation financially, kept in business by student tuition revenues and a system of full-time faculty teaching a set number of courses each semester. A steady group of full-time faculty throughout the academic year anticipated payroll expenses another easy number to calculate on a college or university’s financial statements. Administration of these full-time, traditional students was straightforward too. Twice a year you would register students, bill them and collect tuition revenue.

Beginning in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s this traditional landscape in higher education became more competitive and complex. The traditional demographic of high schools students looking to attend college as full-time students over the course of four years began to shrink. Enter nontraditional degree programs, known today as Degree Completion Programs, which were designed to recruit students outside of the customary demographic of recent high school graduates looking to attend college full-time. These programs were intended to expand the shrinking revenues associated with the traditional student market and they have worked – to a certain extent. On the surface, the tuition revenue from these programs may look like a simple addition to revenue income on the financial statements of a college or university; however, there are some hidden costs that have to be taken into account.

The pool of nontraditional students participating in Degree Completion programs and the revenue that these students generate is more difficult to anticipate and plan for over the course of an academic year. In many cases, a cohort of students will begin their Degree Completion program as soon as a certain number of students have been admitted to that cohort. These programs are in most cases are running on a schedule that is completely outside of the traditional semester system.

One result of the addition of these types of Degree Completion programs to a college or university’s menu of course offerings is that faculty personnel costs are more difficult to budget. For the most part, these Degree Completion programs are offered as evening courses to accommodate the large number of students who work full-time during the day. In order to teach these courses, institutions have had to look outside their institution to find new employees, adjunct faculty, who are willing to work in the evenings in order teach nontraditional students. Although adjunct faculty are valuable and flexible assets that can be added as needed when cohorts of students are admitted and classes begin, they add uncertainty to the forecasting of institutional expenses over the course of the academic year.

Another difficulty with accounting for Degree Completion programs is the added personnel costs that are associated with administering these programs. Since they run on a schedule that is outside of the traditional semester system; new procedures have to be put in place to adequately provide essential services to these students. Typically, staff must be added in the registrar and billing offices to handle the additional administrative work that goes along with registering, billing and grading Degree Completion students outside the twice yearly cycle of traditional academic programs. In many cases, there is also extra effort expended by other employees for which the costs are not easily calculated. For example, when staff in the Institutional Research office are attempting to submit the required government reporting for their students, extra time is needed to accurately calculate full-time equivalencies (FTE’s), retention and other key indicators for the student population. These are payroll expenses that are hard to account for and detect on the financial statements of colleges and universities.

Degree Completion programs and other nontraditional academic program offerings are here to stay and provide real value to students. However, the tuition revenue that these types of programs add to a college or university’s financial statements have to be analyzed in a different manner than the addition of revenue from traditional students. There are hidden costs that need to be accounted for when you look at the bottom line.