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University working on new model of investing in students

Research on students who take advantage of free credit hours turns up some surprising data.

By Lindsey Coulter

January 30, 2019

students studying at table by windowMetropolitan State University of Denver constantly strives to support students’ diverse education needs and preferences. One way the University has historically incentivized students to reach graduation was by offering the tuition window, ensuring that undergraduate students pay the same tuition for 18 credits as they would for 12. The window was designed to help all Roadrunners — but especially economically disadvantaged students — accelerate degree completion and remain on track for graduation.

In fall 2017, graduate-level accounting students gathered data and analyzed the tuition window to determine whether the approach was serving its intended purpose.

What researchers found

  • The tuition window isn’t working as planned.
  • The time it takes students to graduate has increased since the window was created.
  • Working studentsare not able to take advantage.
  • Closing the window will allow the University to focus on more effective ways of supporting students with family and employment obligations.

“The audit suggested that what we were looking for in terms of outcomes, we weren’t getting with the tuition window,” said George Middlemist, Ph.D., associate vice president for Administration/CFO interim vice president for Administration. “The data suggested that the students who were in the window were there because life circumstances allowed it; it was that they were strategically trying to graduate earlier.”

Business Intelligence studies returned consistent findings. The BI team looked at students in and out of the window and found that those taking between 12 and 18 credits were more likely to be dependent students receiving financial support from their families. Students outside the window were more likely to be independent students, have children and not receive financial support from family.

Additional research has shown that closing the window would return about $8.5 million in tuition fees that could be reinvested in student success. For Middlemist and other University leaders, the data shifted the focus to exploring more effective ways to support those students who are holding down jobs, supporting families or balancing other obligations — and whether the tuition window is the resource that students need.

What are the benefits of closing the window?  

  • Revenue generated could be dedicated to student-success outcomes and increasing retention and graduation.
  • Closure would provide an avenue to develop more wrap-around student-support services and career-related opportunities in alignment with student feedback.

University leaders worked with the Student Government Assembly in 2018 to develop a neutrally framed survey to gauge whether students were aware of the window, why and how students selected their credit load, and — if the window were to close — what services might fill the gap. The survey also asked how students would like to see the potential $8.5 million in tuition fees put to use should the window close.

Responses largely confirmed that students who purposely place themselves within the window do so to graduate sooner, while those outside the window noted cost of living, tuition and employment as barriers to taking on a higher credit load. The feedback also suggested that students value services outside of free tuition, as scholarships, academic advising, financial advising and tutoring recurred in survey comments.

“Potentially, we could use some of that $8.5 million to ramp up wrap-around support services,” Middlemist said. “We are trying to improve retention, to help students manage life circumstances that prevent them from being in the window, and to get students to graduation; it’s not about driving up tuition but driving up support.”

Based on further feedback from the SGA, MSU Denver also hired research firm Corona Insights to lead six student focus groups designed to elicit genuine feedback and help University leaders better understand how closing the window might affect students’ credit-hour decisions. The firm’s final report further supported earlier research.

Closure timeline and impacts

  • An incremental phase-out beginning next fall to minimize impact.
  • Annual assessment will ensure flexibility and responsiveness.
  • MSU Denver will remain one of the state’s two most affordable four-year institutions.

Based on research and feedback, the tuition window will be phased out in increments of 25 percent over the next four years, beginning in the fall, according to Middlemist. The intent is to remain flexible, strategic and responsive in order to minimize the impact on students throughout the transition. Any revenue generated will go through the University’s standard budgeting process with oversight from the Budget Task Force, which includes student representation, Middlemist said.

MSU Denver proudly remains a leader in affordable tuition and high-quality education among four-year institutions in Colorado. The University is projected to come in 11th out of 12 higher-education institutions in the state in costs and fees once the window is fully closed.

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