By Bruce Schneider, Director of Business Engineering, Ambassador Education Solutions
The regulatory landscape continues to bring new challenges for educators. As there are far reaching implications that affect the operational capacity and current models that institutions have established, these schools find themselves, yet again, having to adapt their processes and policies in order to comply.
The latest ruling by the Department of Education (DOE) has institutions reconsidering and modifying their bookstore models and course materials processes with regards to the way they provide students with required books and supplies automatically, whether bundled with their tuition fees or as a separate resource or materials fee. Recently published and going into effect July 1, 2016, the DOE’s Final Rule amending certain Program Integrity and Improvement Regulations discloses changes that impact tuition inclusive and resource fee models regarding course materials.
Under the new ruling, colleges and universities must now give students the option to opt-out of automatically receiving their required books (both print and digital) and other supplies.
While the ruling is designed with students in mind, the ramifications from a school’s perspective call for an overhaul of data management and distribution processes, not to mention the emergence of new institutional policies.
What is driving this regulatory change?
Educators universally agree course material interaction and engagement are essential components of student success, yet often colleges and universities find it a struggle to convince students to purchase their required course materials. Be it a student’s financial situation or their view of the value and necessity of the resource, some students have tried to make the case that they could get through a course without purchasing the required materials.
In an effort to deliver a more consistent learning experience across all programs while helping students save money, many institutions began provisioning course materials (print textbooks, eBooks and other supplies) as part of their tuition or as a separate resource or materials fee. The goal was to make course resources readily available and to ensure students had seamless access to materials from the very beginning of the term. Additionally, it gave faculty peace of mind that their students had the tools they needed to succeed.
By imbedding resources into tuition or as a separate resource or materials fee, students were easily given automatic access to their required course materials with no involvement on their part. While the approach helped overcome students’ reticence about purchasing materials and created efficiencies for institutions, some students still wanted the option to pursue other alternatives.
With the DOE ruling, regulators have given students more control through this new mandate, which covers all required books (print and digital) and supplies.
While it reinforces personalization and choice in the learning process, two such things that today’s modern students not only value but expect, the ruling has and will continue to create a logistical frenzy for institutions as they evolve and manage the course materials distribution process.
Some educators suggest it may even have a negative impact on student retention and outcomes, something that remains to be seen, but should be researched and followed.
What does the regulatory change call for?
In order to assist schools in satisfying the new regulation regarding course materials, it is important that institutions understand the requirements as well as the exceptions. It is recommended that each institution’s appropriate compliance group review the formal document link from the DOE, which can be viewed in its entirety here: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-10-30/pdf/2015-27145.pdf.
The stated regulation, in summary, mandates that institutions that automatically provide required books and supplies as part of a tuition inclusive model or thru a resource or materials fee must now provide students the ability to opt-out of receiving such course materials with the understanding that students will be reimbursed any funds that were going to be applied to the costs of those materials.
As with some regulatory mandates, there are exceptions to the rule. The DOE has taken an approach it believes is “beneficial to students and institutions, while also addressing [its] concerns.” Those exceptions include, but are not limited to, course materials that are considered unique to the school and unobtainable through other means (for example, a faculty designed custom packages of presentations, blogs and more), and those course materials that could be considered a health or safety concern (for example, any equipment, chemicals or other materials that could pose a risk, must meet strict standards, and be handled under supervision).
The ruling states: “Changes: We have amended § 668.164(c) to state that an institution may include the costs of books and supplies as part of tuition and fees if:
- The institution has an arrangement with a book publisher or other entity that enables it to make those books or supplies available to students at below competitive market rates. However, the institution must provide a way for a student to obtain the books and supplies by the seventh day of a payment period and must establish a policy under which a student may opt-out of the way provided by the institution,
- the institution documents on a current basis that the books or supplies, including digital or electronic course materials, are not available elsewhere or accessible by students enrolled in that program from sources other than those provided or authorized by the institution, or
- the institution demonstrates there is a compelling health or safety reason.”
According to the DOE, “an institution that does not satisfy or choose to exercise at least one these options, may not include the costs of books and supplies as part of tuition and fees for a program.”
Therefore, students must authorize, or opt-in, for the automatic delivery of the required course materials.
What considerations can help you navigate this ruling?
From communication and data management to reimbursement and distribution practices, colleges and universities need to carefully consider the processes and policies they currently have in place, as well as new ones that will ensure compliance with the ruling. At Ambassador, we power course materials and content integration programs at institutions around the country and are working with our clients to satisfy compliance. Some of the questions and considerations we are fielding include the following.
How can you inform students about their choice to opt-out?
In discussions with impacted institutions, it seems the easiest and most appropriate time to initiate the dialog with students is during the registration process. It is at this point where students can view their courses and the accompanying list of required recourses. They can see which materials follow the exceptions and determine which materials they wish to receive and which materials they wish to purchase (or not purchase) on their own.
How can you handle students requests for opt-outs?
The first step is putting a process in place to support the student opt-out decision making process. Next, you’ll want to make sure you have the data collection and management processes in place to identify which students in which courses have opted-out. One thing to keep in mind at the course level is the separation between those students who are electing not to receive course materials versus those students who are dropping the course altogether.
How can you determine how much money students will retain?
The DOE does not provide a formula that dictates how much money students are entitled to as part of the reimbursement processes, however textbook disclosure requirements order colleges and universities to publish the cost of course materials, even if textbooks are part of a tuition inclusive model. Some institutions will also have to weigh whether or not to issue a partial and whole credit for materials, such as eBooks, that have been licensed in a prior term but are part of the students’ opt-out for the current term.
When can you distribute resource fees back to students?
The DOE does not specify when resource fees must be returned to students, however a timely payback will likely simplify your financial reconciliation and appease your students. Some institutions will need to take into consideration financial aid disbursements, some of which are not paid out until 30 days into the term.
What are your next steps?
Among your many compliance-related tasks, you’ll want to think about how your team will navigate the ruling, communicate with students, manage requests, calculate reimbursements and complete the opt-out cycle for students each term.
It will require diligent planning with an end goal to deliver a high quality student experience, while at the same time simplify administrative tasks.
As you weigh your options, consider a student choice solution that provides students course material alternatives. At Ambassador, we have found that student choice models streamline the education experience for institutions and learners alike. They facilitate personalization, flexibility and empowerment, which can drive student satisfaction. Student choice models can also support regulatory compliance.
A student choice solution is usually provided through a school branded online bookstore interface that puts students in control and provides them with a simple solution for ordering materials, while also satisfying the new DOE rulings. These bookstore solutions can be connected to school records, allowing students to make purchases using their financial aid dollars and/or credit cards.
If your institution is impacted by this new ruling, consult with your legal and compliance team to gauge your current processes and determine where adjustments need to made to act in accordance with the ruling.
Be cognizant of model shifts and modified bookstore functionality in conjunction with your business requirements. Applying practices and policies that will satisfy your institution, your students and the DOE is no small task, but understanding the implications, finding an experienced partner, and following a well thought out strategy can ease the compliance process.
Bruce Schneider leads the development of Ambassador’s integrated bookstore service models and helps customer institutions improve the quality of the student experience at all levels of the course material supply chain. With more than 20-year experience developing and managing business technology solutions, he has served as Director of Software Development at Centris Group and Senior Technical Lead at Sybari Software, now the Forefront group of Microsoft. He is a sought-after speaker in higher education, presenting at APSCU, HLC, Campus Insight, ABHES, LCTCS, ACCET, CAPPS, ACHE, KACCS, and MAPCCS, as well as a graduate of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Contact Information: Bruce Schneider // Director, Business Engineering // Ambassador Education Solutions // 631-770-1010 // firstname.lastname@example.org // www.ambassadored.com // Twitter: @Ambassador_ed