Ending the Late Option

A Texas community college decides to risk losing some state funds by forcing students to register on time — with goal of improving completion rates.
March 11, 2011

In the fall of 2008, 1,300 students registered late for courses at San Jacinto College (some of those students are counted more than once, as they did so for more than one course). Nearly half of those late enrollees either failed or withdrew from the relevant course — about 15 percentage points more than their on-time enrolling peers. Whether they passed, failed or dropped out, these late students generated revenue for the college from their tuition and enrollment-based appropriations from Texas.

Now, after years of documenting the likely failure of late registrants, San Jacinto officials have decided to get rid of late registration altogether. The college is willing to do so even through it may well lose tuition and state funding formula dollars in the process. Officials at San Jacinto — reflecting the consensus among scholars of the topic — believe that the odds are so against those enrolling late that it's unfair to let them register.

“When you’re funded based on the twelfth day of class, it encourages you to drive enrollment and just keep trying to focus on enrollment,” said Brenda Hellyer, San Jacinto chancellor. “But you’ve just got to go with your values. And one of our values is student success. We know we’re going to see results from this.”

San Jacinto piloted the new philosophy last fall, not allowing any late registrations — meaning any time after the first day of class starts — for students needing developmental coursework. Comparing last fall to fall 2009, there were more students enrolled in developmental courses, but the growth from fall to fall was smaller than the college’s overall 7.5 percent enrollment increase — the enrollment growth for developmental courses was less than 1 percent, so officials believe some number of students didn't enroll as a result of the change.

Texas funds its community colleges on a biennial basis, so that institutions receive per-student funding based on the enrollments of fall semesters in even-numbered years. Since 2010 was a base-funding year, San Jacinto may have not received as much money in state appropriations as it would have if it had allowed late registrants in all courses. But Hellyer believes that the college may have earned back some revenue from would-be late registrants who enrolled in the college’s “Take 2" courses, compressed courses on 12-week schedules that start later in the semester.

“My gut was that the impact on enrollment wouldn’t be significant enough for it to matter in a base year, particularly with this pilot,” said Hellyer, who added that the college never calculated how much it may have lost in state appropriations. “But sometimes we debate best practices and contemplate them too much. Sometimes you just need to make a decision.”

Anecdotally, Hellyer said, she has heard of students who would have registered late at San Jacinto enrolling at other nearby community colleges that either do accept late registrants and start their semester later. She acknowledged that San Jacinto may lose more students next fall, when the college plans to stop all late registrations. And if the numbers from fall 2008 and 2009 are any indicator, hundreds of late registrants could be out of luck.

To ensure that these students are not left out in the cold entirely — and to cushion whatever enrollment and tuition hit the college could see — San Jacinto is heavily promoting its “Take 2" courses. Only certain subjects and courses, however, are available through this alternative scheduling option. And, of course, fall 2011 is an off-year for Texas community college funding, but Hellyer said that that's a coincidence.

“We’re willing to take the risk in doing this,” Hellyer said. “The state only makes up 27 percent of my budget…. And even though it only makes up a small part, it’s a critical part. Still, there are some times where you can’t let funding drive decisions.”

Reynaldo Garcia, president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, concurred with Hellyer, noting that many of the student success and completion projects at the state’s community colleges are happening in spite, not because, of state funding.

“There’s just not as much of an incentive to chase the state dollar because the state dollar is worthless,” Garcia said. “Our funding model doesn’t have anything to do with this. It’s just not connected to implementing student success initiatives like these. Like I said, there’s no incentive. The model is only contact-hour-driven.”

Texas' funding model for community colleges isn't unusual; many states simply fund the institutions based on their fall enrollment.

Garcia and his colleagues with the state association are lobbying for a change to the state’s community college funding formula that would provide additional “incentive funding” on top of the initial contact hour formula, as a way to reward institutions that do well on completion. Garcia praised Hellyer’s decision to get rid of late registration despite the uncertain economic climate and potential financial consequences.

“There’s this perverse notion that money is all that drives institutional behavior,” Garcia said. “Sometimes institutions actually act on terms that are in the best interest of students.”

And sometimes, Garcia noted, those actions end up paying for themselves. He cited the example of South Texas College, an institution that got rid of late registration back in 2005 to great success.

South Texas did have concerns about how the switch would impact its tuition and state appropriation revenue, said Kim McKay, interim dean of enrollment services, so the college made sure to end late registration on a non-base funding year. That decision turned out to be a good one, said McKay, since the result of the change was a 3 percent drop in enrollment, from 17,138 to 16,636. The college did get a few of those would-be late registrants back via what it calls “mini-mesters,” or 12-week courses that start a few weeks into the semester. But the overall enrollment including the “mini-mester” students ended up dropping 2 percent from the year prior.

“I had the pleasure of reporting this data to our Board of Trustees, who were not very happy….” wrote William Serrata, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at South Texas, in an e-mail. “However, we explained that this was in the best interest of students… We rebounded with an 11 percent growth and an enrollment of 18,466 students for Fall 2006 and 17,700 students or a 7 percent growth for Spring 2007.”

South Texas has seen year-over-year increases ever since, and enrollment in the “mini-mesters” has ballooned as well, bolstering tuition revenue. The college’s retention rates are currently at 65 percent for first-time full-time students and 61 percent for the total population. Compared to the retention rate of the fall 2004 late registrants, the last who were allowed to do so, this is slightly better by a statistically significant margin.

“We were sensitive to the funding formula and the impact this initiative would have,” said McKay, noting that the college did not calculate its potential revenue loss. “But we had to make a decision to make an investment in our students.”


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