CLOSING in on COMPLIANCE: Approaches to Prioritizing and Managing Costly, Complicated Mandates

By Turner, Marcia Layton | University Business, February 2018 | Go to article overview

CLOSING in on COMPLIANCE: Approaches to Prioritizing and Managing Costly, Complicated Mandates


Turner, Marcia Layton, University Business


Vanderbilt University, with the help of the Boston Consulting Group, conducted a comprehensive internal audit in 2015 to better understand its regulatory compliance costs. With just under 13,000 students, the Nashville university found that compliance cost $146 million in 2013-14, or 11 percent of the school's non-hospital operating budget.

The University of North Carolina's 17 campuses estimated its current compliance costs to be 7 to 8 percent of total campus operating expenses.

Smaller schools are taking a big hit too. Hartwick University in New York, which has about 1,200 students, reported spending $300,000 on compliance in 2012, close to 7 percent of its non-compensation budget.

The Vanderbilt study reported the total annual cost of compliance in higher education to be approximately $27 billion.

So what's all this money being spent on? Labor, for one. And technology to manage, track and report on compliance efforts, on top of training and materials and equipment to facilitate institutional alignment with regulations and statutes--relating to everything from academic programs to campus safety, disabilities, the environment and human resources.

Ignoring compliance isn't an option. Until recently, some colleges have assumed that the way compliance has always been done is still good enough today, says Terry Wynne, associate director for safety at the University of North Dakota. That's risky, with fines that could result in substantial penalties--$150,000, $250,000, and up--plus possible jail time for proven violations.

Institutional leaders can take action, however, to ensure they're on the right track today and to reduce the drain on existing resources.

Be aware... continuously aware

There are an estimated 265 federal statutes for institutions to follow, according to a public compliance matrix developed by the Higher Education Compliance Alliance (HECA), which maintains a centralized repository of free information and resources on federal laws and regulations.

Those statutes, representing federal rules and government expectations, change every year, making it difficult to keep up. Regulatory compliance is also an issue for any college that receives federal funding through Title IV--essentially all institutions offering two-year or four-year degrees and that also provide financial aid.

Given the constant updates, limited budgets and complexity of some of the issues, becoming 100 percent compliant is a goal all schools aspire to achieve. But that's a highly ambitious aim. "Striving for better" is how one administrator describes the attitude of many in the field of education toward compliance.

"Universities want to be compliant and make every effort to be," says Steve Hoffman, president of The Tax Translator and author of Taxation for Universities and Colleges (Wiley, 2013), who worked on compliance issues while tax manager at George Washington and Ohio State universities.

Prioritize and prepare

Some regulatory issues are a larger priority in 2018 than others. Those include student safety (as mandated by the Campus SaVE Act, Clery Act and Violence Against Women Act) and Title IX's sexual harassment and misconduct rules.

To avoid non-compliance penalties, many colleges rely heavily on training and other support from third-party vendors, says Donna McMullin, vice president of marketing at Scenario Learning, the developer of SafeColleges safety and compliance programs.

According to 2017 Scenario Learning data, the top four most-completed Safe-Colleges training courses cover topics related to Title IX, sexual violence, sexual misconduct and sexual harassment for staff and students. Other courses in the top 10 cover discrimination awareness; confidentiality of records; alcohol awareness for students; the Clery Act; blood-borne pathogen exposure prevention; and slips, trips and falls. …

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