Creating an off campus experience for … oh … free

Off campus programs (OCP) may have waned a little in popularity in the past few years but spending a semester abroad remains a draw for a number of students, especially those who are stronger academically.  Unique and high-quality programs are a distinctive that may be of great benefit, particularly to an institution with softening demand.

The problem? They are expensive.  Institutions handle this cost in a variety of ways.  Some charge a normal semester’s worth of tuition, room and board, allowing the student to receive institutional aid but with the institution writing a check to the provider.  That check is often a lot more than what the institution collects from the student.   Others replace the student’s normal bill with whatever the OCP charges, passing along the program’s cost but still losing that student’s net tuition, room and board for a semester.  Some have their own programs and save a little by not using an intermediary.  Others offer limited slots so that the number of students either extracting large checks or foregoing tuition is a managed budgetary item.  There really is no one way to handle this and each of the ones I have mentioned represent budgeted commitments, subject to curtailment if finances are constrained.

Let me suggest creating your own program and funding it by bringing in students from other institutions.  This is an approach that I used some time ago to establish a program in Africa; one that is still in operation some fifteen years hence.  Other programs, established on a more expensive paradigm lost their financial footing when budgets were tightened.

Consider then this sequence of actions to establish a financially viable program.

1.  Begin with a capable champion.  Ideally, use a faculty member who has a background either in related research or has actually lived in the country of interest.  He or she must also be willing to spend a semester abroad every year or every other year and be the faculty member of record for the program.  This person will personify the program so they will need to be charismatic (see 5. “Go on the Road” below).

2.  Create a broadly beneficial curriculum.  Some programs fail to attract a reasonable number of participants because the courses offered by the OCP are too narrowly focused on specific majors.  Create a curriculum that satisfies some major requirements but will also benefit those who are minoring in a discipline or need various upper level electives for general education.  Part of the work of the champion is to find local adjuncts to provide appropriate options for students.  The more the better.

3.  Put a realistic budget together for the program.  This is an area where the champion will research the various options for lodging, transportation, instructional space, food, field trips, insurance, adjunct faculty etc.  Include the cost of the group traveling to and from the experience as well and the cost of marketing materials.  The budget is a critical piece that must be locked down with a measure of certainty.  When in doubt, estimate high.  The institution will cover the cost of one faculty member for the semester so the sponsor/champion does not need to be covered by the budget.

4.  Establish the financing / recruitment plan.  The typical ratio is to enroll 60% of student participants from your institution and 40% from other institutions.  Charge a fee on top of a normal room and board charge and call the entire cost an OCP participation fee.  I suggest about $850.  The way it is financed is that the OCP participation fee from ALL participating students is added to the tuition charge for the outside students only.

As an example, suppose that a total of twenty students are budgeted to participate in your program, under the 60/40 split of those from your campus and students from other institutions.  Presume that your normal room and board costs $2,150 per semester and a program fee of $850 is added on to create a total OCP Participation fee of $3,000 per student.  Presuming also that a semester’s tuition is $14,000, consider the following grid:

Budgeted OCP Revenue            Net Tuition   OCP Part. Fee      Total

Your institution (12 students)             $0              $36,000         $36,000

Other institutions (8 students)      $112,000         $24,000       $144,000

Total revenue available for semester-long OCP budget          $180,000

Your own students receive whatever financial aid they normally get and off campus students receive no institutional aid from your school.  Your students pay a mere $850 more than they would normally pay for a semester abroad.  The spending budget works out to be $9,000 per participating student, in this example.  It can be made lower or higher through reductions or additions to the outside students participating or by reducing or increasing the OCP participation fee.  Work your magic with Excel.

The invoices for outside participants are sent-to and paid-for by their sponsoring institution.  Ideally, those students will receive their normal financial aid from the sending college or university.  They will also receive course credit from their sending institution.  This justifies using their entire tuition for program needs.

5. Go on the road.  Obviously, this approach relies on selling the program to other institutions. Create marketing materials and travel around the country (include this in the program budget) to promote the program to other institutions.  The Champion will be touting the benefits of the program directly to whomever will listen.  Ideally, they speak to students in classes for the disciplines that benefit from this kind of an experience.  A chapel message is even better.  These should be story-based lessons, versus a description of the program. Save that for the end, after you have hooked them with your stories.

6. Establish sign-up deadlines.  In my example, you will need twelve students from your own institution and eight from others.  You need to nail down both by a certain date but, if experience is any guide, the off campus students will be the ones who are the hardest to sign up.  They bring the greatest dollars, however, and are needed to fund the cost of your own students.  If the deadline passes and the number of students from elsewhere are not in the ballpark of what is needed, the program cannot come off.  This is a critical standard because a failure to attract other students will created a budgetary burden from the program and result in its cancellation whenever a new budgetary crisis erupts.  And they do occur from time to time.

7.  Bring on a logistical expert.  This does not have to be an expensive position to hire in for.  Sometimes, enthusiastic champions cover the logistical issues for their first year and budget for that person if the program is a success.  Coordinating an off campus program is challenging, however, and students don’t always want to comply with deadlines and requirements.  The logistical person’s work is ever more critical if self-managed OCPs become a hallmark for your institution.

Closing thoughts

I have structured the financial arrangements and my dear wife the logistics of registration and travel for institutionally operated OCPs.  These initiatives can bring substantial benefits to the institution, even representing a draw for the high-achieving student.  If you create an appealing program and can sell it to other institutions, this entire process can be pulled off without a hit to your net tuition budget.

Let’s talk!