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How to make money: Colleges find a new way

Created to administer missed exams, college testing centers now generate revenue
University Business, June 2017
  • Almost every college and university has a version of a testing center, whether it’s a cramped space or an elaborate setup with multiple computer rooms, private cubicles and dozens of seats. (GettyImages.com: skynesher).
  • LOCK IT UP—The U of West Georgia's testing center upgrade included a locker room. "Anything you bring is going into a locker," says Francesca Taylor, testing services director. "We're not giving any student an unfair advantage over another."
  • LOCK IT UP—The U of West Georgia's testing center upgrade included a locker room. "Anything you bring is going into a locker," says Francesca Taylor, testing services director. "We're not giving any student an unfair advantage over another."

Q: Campus testing centers:

A. vary in size and resources from institution to institution

B. administer national standardized assessments, professional certification exams, and makeup and placement tests

C. can serve as an alternative revenue stream

D. all of the above

Almost every college and university has a version of a testing center, whether it’s a cramped space with a few desks designed for students with special needs, or an elaborate setup with multiple computer rooms, private cubicles and dozens of seats.

The only common thread seems to be wary administrators staying vigilant for testers trying to get an advantage, from hiding answers in the pleats of skirts to writing chemical compounds on the labels of water bottles (true stories).

“There are almost no two testing centers alike—there will be similarities in a number of places, but every institution creates what it needs to fulfill its needs,” says Duane Goupell, president of the National College Testing Association, a nonprofit that promotes testing best practices.

As the director of testing services at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Goupell oversees four part-time employees who are paid out of the institution’s operations budget.

In addition to conducting tests for professors on campus, the university contracts to handle multiple outside tests—including educational exams and professional certifications for Castle Worldwide, Comira, CATS, ISO Quality Testing, Lasergrade and ETS.

From cosmetology management to crane operation, nearly every subject appears on tests at the facility.

Oshkosh’s center has three testing areas: two for computer-based exams and one classroom for traditional paper tests, plus a room for scanning and scoring. Goupell estimates the testing office generates approximately $100,000 per year, part of which goes to cover operating costs and equipment.

“For many years,” says Goupell, “testing offices were kind of like, ‘Go over there, give some tests.’ They weren’t thought of very highly.”

As enrollment continues to stay flat and federal and state funding tightens, many campus testing offices—long considered simply a student service—have grown into a more sophisticated, revenue-generating operation.

Testing center standards to strive for

The National College Testing Association’s standards for testing centers cover six areas:

1. Policy: Test centers must adhere to general policies that promote high-quality operations, professional mandates and ethical practices as outlined in the Code of Fair Testing Practices in Education.

2. Contractual agreements: Test companies and testing centers must sign contractual agreements for exam delivery.

Making the grade

“There’s certainly a lot of money to be made in testing,” says Steve Saladin, director of testing and assessment at the University of Idaho.

His center offers 13 seats, all configured for computer-based exams, spread over two rooms.

Placement testing for incoming students in math and foreign languages, as well as SAT and ACT tests, get administered there. GRE and GMAT tests, graduate admission exams, PRAXIS certification tests and NCESS tests for engineers are also conducted.

In addition, the center contracts with testing companies for professional certifications, such as TSA screening of potential airport employees. The vast majority of administered exams are for outside entities, Saladin says.

The office administers between 2,500 and 3,000 exams per year, generating revenue between $60,000 and $70,000. As with other testing offices, a portion of income goes toward operating costs, new equipment and software, and wages—in this case, for two part-time testing assistants who manage exams.

The biggest challenge: trying to expand the center’s offerings without adding more staff. Saladin suggests colleges in more populated areas could support 40 to 50 seats.

“If they can keep those seats full all the time, they can make a significant amount of money,” he says. “Working out a schedule to maintain as many full seats as possible is an ongoing day-to-day project.”

Part of that process is monitoring testing cycles in the local community. For example: knowing demand for the GRE is higher in the latter part of the fall because that’s when students traditionally apply to grad schools.

Effective scheduling also involves tracking which professional organizations—such as the National Council of Engineers for Engineering and Surveying, or the Professional Golfers Association—require exams for licensure or certification.

Testing center standards to strive for (cont.)

The National College Testing Association’s standards for testing centers cover six areas:

3. Staffing: A number of individuals may be involved in the setup, coordination and administration of tests—including full- or part-time staff and/or staff hired only for particular testing situations—but one test operations manager must ultimately be accountable.

4. Institutional representation and coordination: Directors of testing centers should advocate for their needs with administrators and ensure the community is fully aware of its services.

As with any business, companies contracting out testing want to pay as little as possible to have their exams delivered and, when negotiating contracts, may play on an institution’s desire to provide a service for students. Testing center administrators need to do the math and determine fair rates for their service.

“A lot of negotiation depends on volume,” says Saladin. “If someone can guarantee me a higher volume, then I can take a lower rate per hour per seat because I’m going to get a lot of business from them.

If it’s just an occasional dropping in, then I need to charge more per seat hour.” Each client company has its own set of procedures—requiring training time and extra overhead for staff.

If Idaho’s testing center gives only 20 exams per year, each needs to generate enough revenue to justify the commitment. But if there are 500 exams, the work can be done for a lower per-exam fee. Regularly filling the room means more overall income than if there are a lot of empty seats, even if each seat may be earning less.

Having other test centers nearby can also affect bargaining power, based on supply and demand.

Even if payment cannot be negotiated, other aspects might be, such as requiring tests be delivered on weekends or nights.

Testing center standards to strive for (cont.)

The National College Testing Association’s standards for testing centers cover six areas:

5. Physical environment: Location, space and layout are vital to a testing center, as are the conditions under which tests are handled, stored and administered.

6. ADA compliance: Testing centers must be fully informed about legal and ethical requirements of assisting students with disabilities.

Extra credit

A testing center does not have to rely on a host of outside vendors to generate revenue.

The testing office at the University of West Georgia brings in between $40,000 and $50,000 annually—with 90 percent of its approximately 7,000 tests being for university-related programs (such as the University System of Georgia eCore exams), says Francesca Taylor, director of academic testing services.

The center charges approximately $15 per examinee for distance learners needing a proctor, CLEP test-takers and examinees taking online eCore exams. For exams such as the Miller Analogies Test and the Institutional SAT, test-takers pay a rate equal to what an independent testing company would charge the center to administer.

Students taking institutionally mandated exams—such as Georgia History proficiency and Georgia Constitution proficiency exams—test at no charge.

Serving students with documented learning or physical disabilities is another focus for UWG’s testing center. One environment can accommodate 25 students with basic learning disabilities, such as ADHD.

Another room has an enlarger for test-takers with visual impairments, two word-processing spaces and other special equipment for test-takers with physical disabilities.

There are two computer labs; one offers 15 seats, the other 30. In addition to SAT and ACT exams, the center handles certification testing for companies such as Criterion, and contracts with ExamSoft to administer licensure exams and other professional certifications.

The center is applying to become NCTA-certified, meaning it will be recognized for demonstrating proficiency in test integrity, confidentiality, staff training and program evaluation. More than 100 testing centers nationwide carry this designation, and there is no charge for certification.

Certification also raises a center’s profile, which can lead to additional revenue opportunities.

“A fair number of my contracts are from a company reaching out to me,” says Saladin of the University of Idaho. “We’re in a pretty rural area, so if they have a need here, then usually I’m the one they contact.”

In addition to expanding space and services to accommodate additional test- takers—such as the new locker room West Georgia recently added to stow personal items—centers looking to increase revenue need to keep up with the latest in security and technology.

Up-to-date software and hardware are critical for handling evolving testing protocols, including lockdown browsers and programs that monitor a tester’s computer screen. Testing office administrators also need to be aware of IT issues, such as having enough bandwidth to process larger digital test files.

Generating revenue comes down to how much time and resources an institution is willing to invest, and determining what the ultimate mission is for the testing office.

“It’s important that upper administration be familiar with what the testing center does, and its importance to campus,” says NCTA president Goupell. “Their support is helpful to achieving everyone’s goals.”

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