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Increasing the Funding of Your Learning Center

Abstract

We held a moderated discussion with nine Penji partners to discuss successes, failures, and top strategies for expanding funding. Three themes came out: centralized funding, collaborative funding, and efficient spending of existing resources. I think you’ll find some useful tips and ideas in this post!
Written by
Ben Holmquist
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Published on
April 4, 2024

Introduction

Running a successful learning center is complex. If training, scheduling, and data analysis weren’t enough, you must also defend your funding and ask for more. We held a moderated discussion with 9 Penji partners (including CU Boulder, Rutgers, and Oakland Community College) focused on just this topic. This post will dive into takeaways from the conversation, including centralized funding, collaborative funding, and some best practices for efficient spending. Hope you enjoy.

Strategies for Obtaining More Funding

Centralized Funding

To secure centralized funding (e.g. from the Provost’s office), work to demonstrate the value of your services to the institution as a whole. This can be achieved by focusing on three key areas:

  1. Growth in student traffic
    By actively promoting your services and cultivating engagement, you can showcase student demand. It is hard to argue with “our tutors are booked back to back - we need more funding!”. Use your data on visit traffic to create a compelling narrative of growth and impact and shout it from the rooftops. Look at your data in different lenses - total visits, visits per class or subject, visits for specific student segments - to find a compelling story to tell, and then focus your annual or semesterly reports on that.
  2. Impact on DFW rates
    Reducing the DFW rate in a course is tightly linked with reducing the overall dropout rate. And student retention is what the powers that be care about the most. Get to know the faculty in high DFW courses; consider offering embedded support in these courses and specializing your training to ensure effectiveness in them. Track the DFW rate with the faculty - if it starts going down you can make a case that your tutors are impacting success and retention.
  3. Creating a strong proposal
    When requesting additional funding, it's important to frame your services in a way that aligns with the priorities of your institution. Beyond total engagement and DFW rates, consider highlighting usage amongst key student populations like first generation students. Read your campus’ strategic plan to align your language with leadership’s language. Another great idea is pitching your center as a source of "on-campus employment," emphasizing how most dollars spent go to active student tutors, contributing to on-campus engagement, success of your best students, and even alumni relations after these tutors graduate. Write your proposal by thinking about the reader and what they care about.

Collaborative Funding

Another powerful strategy for obtaining funding is to forge partnerships with other units on campus. By understanding the challenges and priorities of various departments, colleges, and success units, you can position your learning center as a valuable collaborator and resource. This involves two key steps:

  1. Networking
    Take the time to build relationships with departments and other units around campus. Attend faculty meetings, participate in campus-wide committees, and engage in informal conversations to gain a deeper understanding of the needs and pain points of different folks on campus. Can you help them solve their problems? Build a deep understanding of their situation.
  2. Solving the challenges of other units
    As you discover what your colleagues struggle with, look for ways to address their needs using your services. For example, if a department is struggling with high DFW rates in certain courses, propose embedding tutors or offering targeted study sessions to support their students. Propose an initial test run that would help the parties be comfortable with the process and effectiveness of your tutors, and work together to measurably improve their outcomes. While quantitative outcomes are great, even non-measurable outcomes, like just having a tutor available for embedded support, feels good to folks and can justify the partnership.

Examples of successful collaborations from programs on the call:

  • Tutors in high DFW courses (see above)
  • Certifying tutors as coaches as well, earning funding from the coaching bucket of funding
  • Collaborating with the graduate school to fund expanded services for graduate students
  • Embedded tutors who made faculties lives easier, creating support from faculty which then convince the provost to increase centralized funding

Increasing Labor without Additional Funding

In some cases, it may be possible to expand your learning center's services without securing additional direct funding. One creative approach is to work with departments to utilize their existing resources, such as teaching assistants (TAs) or graduate students.

Many departments have TAs or grad students with fixed payrolls who may not be fully utilized. By partnering with these departments, you can provide meaningful work while simultaneously increasing your labor force.

Spending Money Efficiently

In addition to securing new funding, it's important to ensure that your learning center is using its existing resources well. Two key areas to focus on are analyzing underutilized hours and attracting tutors despite potentially lower pay rates.

Analyzing underutilized hours

Regularly review your center's usage data to identify times when tutors are less busy. If you notice consistent patterns of low student engagement during certain hours, consider adjusting your staffing schedule accordingly. Many Penji partners have shifted from low-usage drop-in hours to a higher share of appointments, and only pay their tutors for appointments for which they are booked. Note that, for the latter model to work, you’ll want to offer tutors flexibility to control their own schedules to justify why you are only paying them for hours that they are booked. 

In the process of cutting costs, you may be worried that you don’t know where to re-invest that saved money, or you might fear that you are somehow going in the wrong direction, offering LESS tutoring, not more. Try to fight that fear. When people get more resources, or more time back in their day, they always find a way to utilize those things. You will figure it out.

Attracting tutors despite lower pay rates

Attracting and retaining skilled tutors (see Developing Your Tutorbase) is essential for achieving increased funding. You may be limited on the pay rate you can offer, though. To overcome this, consider implementing creative strategies to make the tutoring position more attractive to potential candidates.

  1. Offer creative resume builders
    Develop a Peer Tutoring Certificate or Mentoring Certificate program that provides tutors with valuable training, recognition, and a tangible addition to their resumes. By investing in your tutors' professional development, you demonstrate your commitment to their growth and make the position more appealing, even if the pay rate is lower than other on-campus jobs.
  2. Advocate for higher pay
    While it may not always be possible to offer top-tier pay rates, you can still advocate for fair compensation for your tutors. Compare tutor roles to other on-campus positions, such as bus drivers or dining hall staff, and emphasize the importance and impact of the work they do. By making a compelling case for the value of tutoring, you may be able to negotiate higher pay rates over time.
  3. Propose fixing tutor pay to a ratio of adjunct faculty pay
    Another approach is to propose tying tutor pay to a percentage of adjunct faculty pay. While this may not result in an immediate significant increase, it can create a framework for future pay bumps. As adjunct faculty receives raises, tutor pay will automatically increase proportionally, ensuring that your center's compensation remains competitive.
  4. Consider a flexible, "Uber-like" model.
    Put yourself in a successful students’ shoes. Wouldn’t you like to be able to add hours, or lower hours, on a whim, taking work when it fits your schedule and bandwidth, and focusing on tutoring topics that help you re-learn foundational material for your current classes? This is an awesome job for the go-getter type. Consider implementing a robust scheduling system (like Penji) that allows tutors to control their schedules based on your guidelines. 

Conclusion

Securing funding for your learning center is an ongoing process. By combining centralized funding, collaborative partnerships, and efficient management of existing resources, you can create a sustainable financial foundation for your center.

Remember, the key to success lies in understanding the unique needs and priorities of your institution and your colleagues. Build strong relationships with key stakeholders, including faculty, staff, and administrators, and consistently demonstrate the value and impact of your services. By aligning your center's mission with the broader goals of your college or university, you position yourself as an essential resource worthy of investment.

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