Over the past couple of decades, Higher Education has experienced an ebb and flow of charges and fees beyond tuition. Some have argued that the cost of attendance is high and therefore students should not be subjected to additional fees for programs or services. Others have taken the position that to minimize tuition costs, additional services should be funded on a pay-as-you-go basis.
One fee that is close to the heart of many Registrars is the transcript fee. It is interesting to watch the periodic survey question along the lines of, “What does your school charge for transcripts?” that is posted to many social media channels, listserves and among professional associations. The responses to such questions typically fall into three categories:
- The school charges a transaction fee that is applied on a per transcript basis. The specific amount of this fee varies widely, from a few dollars to many dollars. It is typical to find special caveats such as the first transcript is free, but a charge is applied for additional copies. (Which opens the age-old Registrar humor of one free copy per request or for the lifetime of the student!)
- The school charges a document fee which may be assessed one time, such as the first semester enrolled, or more commonly, assessed each semester. This approach not only eliminates the transaction fee itself, but more importantly eliminates the associated accounting/payment detail from the transcript ordering process. When adopting this form of a fee structure, the philosophy is to approximate the amount of revenue that would otherwise be generated through a transactional fee approach. Prior graduates and alumni are usually grandfathered into the new process without incurring any transcript costs. The document fee approach may or may not include other types of documents, such as replacement diplomas.
- The school does not charge any form of a transcript fee. Common variations of this no-charge approach are no fee if the transcript is issued to the student, or no fee for unofficial transcripts. This approach is very student centric, but potentially represents uncontrollable costs for the Registrar.
What does the fee represent?
For those schools that impose a transcript fee, the most common response to this question is one of cost recovery. In other words, the fee is charged to offset direct and indirect costs of producing the transcript. Direct costs are paper, envelopes, postage and e-commerce fees for online payment processing. Indirect costs may include printer ink and supplies, amortized cost of printers and staff time.
The simple truth is that few schools have actually conducted a cost study and their transcript fee is subjective. It may be a cost model whereby an original fee was established many years ago and periodic incremental increases have been added along the way. Or perhaps the transcript fee is set to a comparable amount with other schools in the area or the conference. Regardless, the Registrar is often the champion of minimizing fees paid by students.
How is the fee revenue used?
The answer is likely based on philosophy. One line of thinking at many schools is that the revenue generated through the transcript fee is retained within the Registrar’s budget to offset the actual cost of producing the transcript and to fund other in-office expenditure, such as professional travel, staff development, office supplies and so on. On other campuses, transcript revenue is considered as a general revenue source and is not retained by the Registrar’s office.
The critical thought is that the school’s account process should correlate actual expenses with income. Increases in costs without a corresponding revenue offset places the Registrar in a difficult position to maintain, or improve, student service.
In addition to the school’s established fee policy, the student may be charged additional fees for special services such as priority ordering, online ordering or priority delivery. Priority ordering essentially places the student’s request in the front of the processing queue. This can provide an expediting effect at times of the academic year when many transcript requests are occurring. Online ordering fees are often charged by service providers and represent added value to both the school and the student. Priority delivery fees are generally pass-through costs from the expedited postal service provider to the student. In passing through these costs, some schools charge the actual cost from the provider, while others use an “average” cost that places them in a break-even position at the end of the budget year.
The critical take-away of all convenience fees is that these should represent student choice. If the student recognizes value in the special services, they will elect to incur the additional cost. If not, the student will decide to not use the special service and avoid the additional cost.
At each school, there are unique philosophies, policies and practices that establish the environment for a transcript fee. While these details vary, the Registrar performs a consistent role in delivering appropriate services that meet student needs. Part of this role is to offer added value services, enabling the student to utilize the services when they see the added benefit.