Hiding in Plain Sight

Using a course materials strategy to improve academic performance and financial stability

Istudents on college greenn my role, I have a catbird’s seat as to what is going on in higher education.   My company works with roughly 150 institutions and through conversations with prospective clients I regularly interact with dozens more.  Most administrators I have spoken to are very conscious of the impact the pandemic may have on student outcomes as well as financial resources.  Yet when I ask them about their course materials strategy, I often receive back curious looks.  

Recently, I was involved in a panel discussion with a group of community college presidents. Each of them agreed with the statement that students who don’t have their course materials are academically underprepared and their grades would likely suffer, if not result in outright failure of a class.  During the discussion I shared some recent studies that found up to 85% of students don’t have all of their course materials the first day of class and that up to 30% of students never buy the required materials. 

Each of them discussed awareness of programs that would allow their students to have books/materials the first day of class and that by being prepared retention would go up approximately 2-4%.  They also agreed this would over time, yet most remained unsure of what actionable steps could drive these outcomes.

What I realized was that many have yet to make the connection between retention and improved financial outcomes.  If we take a moment to look at things in business terms, while it takes a lot of money to acquire a student, once a student is enrolled, the marginal cost to educate them is fairly minimal and just a 1% lift in retention would result in significant improvement relative to operating surplus.  

When I look across the landscape, leading mega universities, nonprofits, and for-profit institutions have been highly intentional about their course material strategies, understanding the link between course materials and student preparedness (not to mention cost and convenience).  Taking advantage of lower cost options that are emerging in the marketplace or leveraging content that the university may be paying for already (e.g. library subscriptions) are natural ways to lower costs for all involved.  As a result, these leading institutions have started to move to models that support their course material strategies, some of which bundle the cost of course materials into their student bursar bills. 

I hope that as we begin 2021, more and more of my conversations are centered around these topics.  Nearly every institution would do well to think through their course materials strategy and how it can affect their twin bottom lines – financially and the impact they are having on student lives.

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