Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Ask the Administrator: A Class Lottery?

A returning correspondent whose pet course got canceled for low enrollment writes:

So, I've been thinking what I might do to make it run this spring, beyond hanging up posters in the fall, talking it up with my students, and so on.

I came up with this: what if an anonymous donor (that is, the instructor) offered to reimburse course tuition for a couple of students, chosen at random, from among the students who pass the course with an A or B, the only passing grades I'd be offering? What if that scholarship offer were publicized all fall so that any sign-ups knew they were entering a lottery with a pretty good chance of winning?

I thought that sort of publicity in school paper, on website, through word-of-mouth, among advisors, and so on might give us the threshold number for running the course.

What do you think?

Wow. Even at cc tuition levels, that's audacious.

Questions like these are what make administration interesting. At my cc, someone would come in and ask “what's our policy on this?” and actually expect me to have an answer, as if we'd have a policy on this sort of thing.

While I admire the panache, I'd recoil from this idea as if from a bad smell. It comes just a little too close to a 'kickback' for my comfort.

The fact that the one assigning the grades is also the one donating the cash rings alarm bells for me. It wouldn't be that hard for some very sticky ethical conflicts to develop. For one thing, you'd actually have a pecuniary incentive to give low grades. Even if that were the farthest thing from your mind, I'd expect some low-performing students to figure out that angle pretty fast, and to use it as a rhetorical battering ram. Not good.

I'd also be worried about precedent-setting. “Pay to play” strikes me as a problematic way for instructors to get the courses they want. It's no secret that faculty often jockey for the most desirable teaching assignments. If an expectation of a sort of tithing became the norm – which is a conceivable long-term consequence of this working – we'd see schedules built in weird ways, and for all the wrong reasons. After all, if your gambit works, what's to stop the next professor, and the next one, and the next one? Once they've picked the plums, those professors who actually need their salaries are stuck with the dregs, or with other kinds of prizes. (“Win a date with the hottest professor on campus!”) We'd take the “student as customer” model to the next level, and allow students to play professors off against each other for more and better perks. This one's giving away ipods! That one's not giving anything? Screw him!

I shudder at the thought of faculty giving away escalating amounts of swag to attract students to their classes. That movie doesn't end well.

There could also be legal issues. In some jurisdictions, raffles are treated as a form of gambling, and the restrictions on that can be pretty tight, depending on location. But imagine that some student who earned an 'A' in the class had a religious objection to what she considered gambling. She could argue that, by virtue of her religious beliefs, she was charged higher effective tuition than everybody else. Now you've got a big, hairy civil rights lawsuit on your hands, as does the college. The publicity could get very, very ugly. I can actually feel the aneurysm form as I think about it.

Pragmatically, the faculty union would have me keel-hauled for even suggesting this. For once, I'd actually agree with the union.

I'm also not sure how this would work for students on financial aid. Aid is awarded based on tuition. If the tuition is subsequently refunded, does the student return the aid? What if it were a Pell grant, and the student graduated upon completing the course? Since the whole student loan mess came to the surface, financial aid rules have come under much stricter scrutiny. I wouldn't want to mess with that, especially in this climate.

There's nothing wrong with talking up your classes, maybe putting a few posters out there, and lobbying your chair for a good time slot. But from an administrative perspective, anything approved sets a precedent, and it's much harder to put on the brakes after something gets going. I'm sure you're working from the purest of motives, and I admire the ingenuity, but I just couldn't let this fly.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you found an ethical-and-effective way to attract students to your pet courses?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Gee, deandad, I can see this put your what-if machine in high mode and allowed extrapolation to the nth, but I think you overreact, though I'm sure your correspondent, a humble cc instructor, no doubt loved being described as 'audacious' and showing 'ingenuity.'

Perhaps your correspondent did not make clear that his idea was to establish a one-time scholarship for this course to create buzz. The scholarship would be administered by the school and granted on the basis of...well, he would see your point about lotteries, I bet, so is there some legal and unentangled way to award such things?

He probably came up with the idea of a lottery originally as a way to avoid charges of favoritism....

(How about a prize compettion for the course--the two best portfolios as determined by someone not the instructor to get the equivalent of tuition?)

Anyway, under the original scheme there would be no pecuniary incentive for him to give low grades, even if that were not insanely perverse, because from his POV the money has already been donated to the school's scholarship fund, and he already has the letter his accountant will insist on come April 15. It's sunk.

Does that help answer objections?

If the scholarship were awarded at the start, rather than upon completion, as his own, non- deandad dean possibly might suggest, would that answer others?

The jockeying for courses you suggest is an interesting question. I would wager that your correspondent is in a department with a million adjuncts and just a few fulltimers. He probably is encouraged to create electives, now that his institution is a full cc, but often does not get to teach his creations as the numbers signing up do not allow it. So, he winds up teaching the same 'commodity' courses the adjuncts teach, at a much higher rate of pay, of course.

Because of his good experience teaching one elective course of his that did and continues to fly, he probably feels that his morale, his verve, and his institutional buy-in would be even more enhanced after a lifetime teaching if he could just get the course you describe off the ground: hence, his ingenuity and audacity.

Why should he not look for a better teaching assignment than the adjuncts around him? Why should he not want to distinguish himself from the hired hands? He's willing to create the electives the school wants, to put in hard, extra work--all he asks is the chance to teach!

I think the instructor making the suggestion probably has no clue about how student aid and tuition work, but however funded, however narrow the standards for their award, surely scholarships are not mythical beasts.
I can't say that I've ever heard of such a scenario, but for a course that I took an instructor did offer an automatic "A" for certain students under the following circumstances:

The particular course required students in the class (about 30 or so) to develop a sophosticated and involved final "project". The project proposals would then be posted and each class member would then vote for their 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice that they thought they might want to work on. The result was I think about 7 or 8 projects with teams of about 6 to 8 students assigned to them.

The incentive was an automatic "A" for those students whose projects were ultimately chosen, which counted for a significant amount of the overall final course grade. This was a great motivator since the course was very demanding, and some people figured they needed whatever help they could get. The trouble is, from my view anyway, that the specific nature of the incentive was revealed at the beginning of the process rather than after, so while this motivated people to put some effort into developing their proposals and marketing it to their fellow classmates in order to increase the chances that it would be chosen, it also had the unintended effect of subsequently allowing winning students to coast along without doing too much since he/she already knew they were going to receive an "A" for the project. Unfortunately, because of the complexity of the projects, executing them required "all hands on deck" causing the burden to be distributed somewhat unevenly across remaining team members.

I think it might have been better to keep the exact nature of the incentive under wraps until the end of the term. Anyway, this is not quite the scenario the writer lays out. There was no direct tie-in as far as tuition was concerned, but as DD speculates, you can never be sure how incentives will play out and it can open all sorts of doors that were better left closed.
Dean Dad said, "maybe putting a few posters out there . . . ." I'm not sure if DD was including a critique of the practice in his phrasing or not (which is pretty standard today--new profs are arriving to teach at colleges everywhere having come through grad school experiences that involved their own profs seeking their enrollment via posters), but posters only sometimes work and can have pretty minimal returns. One big exception in my experience is when students choose from an array of options that are equivalent for graduation/major purposes and yet have significant differences they can't easily understand. At my SLAC, short-term study abroad courses fall into that category.

More successful marketing in my experience comes from word of mouth among other students. Good luck.
I think the scholarship lottery is a terrible idea, if only that it will produce a set of students who will whine for every grade...

It is probably more ethical (but still unethical) to pump up your on ratings on "rate my professor".

The best way to increase buzz about a new course is to start with your current students. At the beginning or end of class, announce the new class -- explain what is going to be great about it etc. This also gets you students you WANT in the class (instead of just bodies), because they know you and they know what your class is like -- and they are choosing to come back to you.

I've had a lot of success with this kind of thing by 'consulting' related classes about the content of the new class -- this gets them involved from the beginning and then they want to know how the new class will turn out.
I once marketed a course to every elementary, middle, and high school in our county and it was a very attractive course for teachers to take. I used TV, newspaper and even mail outs to the schools. I got a grand total of one call back from a teacher who said she was really interested in the class, but declined since her daughter was going to show a hog at local fairs that fall. I find advertising to have few tangible returns.

Might your correspondant review their classroom practices? Students might be voting with their feet, particularly if they have more attractive options.

Just a thought...
Dean Dad wrote, "For once, I'd actually agree with the [faculty] union."

C'mon Dean Dad, we have many more common interests than we do differences--and I say this as I begin my 34th year of teaching and union activism.

How about a "faculty unions, good or bad?" discussion?

In my state (Indiana), because the students are required to pay in order to enter the lottery (class), it's gambling. It doesn't matter if they would have paid the same tuition without the lottery - it's still considered gambling. I didn't write the law; I'm just passing along information.

Marketing an individual class is a problem no matter what the class, as waydownsouth maintains, because you are marketing to such a narrow audience. A poster may be viewed bya lot of students (although it is a very passive form of marketing), but are the right students seeing the poster? A mailing may reach every teacher in your area, but is it reaching the right teachers with the right offer at the right time?

I also live and work in a region of the country where you better not schedule anything during county and state fair time because no one will show up.
Someone at MIT did something sort of similar to this when he guest lectured a class. Phil Greenspun has more financial resources than your average CC instructor, though.

When he actually gave an entire course in Fall 2003, I don't think he was doing any tuition refunds.
The whole thing about a lottery for free tuition reimbursement smells unethical.

If your course won't fill, then it seems clear no one wants to take it.

I say try a different marketing tactic: flyers in unusual places, talk it up to former and current students, get colleagues to recommend it.

If it still doesn't fill to minimum, then it's probably just not a subject anyone but you cares all that much about.
Try to tweak the course so it meets a general education requirement for the school and let the counselors know about the "new option" the course represents. Offer it at night when working people can take it more easily. Make the course a distance course so that more people can enroll asynchronously. There's lots of ways to make a course more attractive. I'd say the tuition idea, while creative, is problematic.
In addition to posters, I also send out related emails, go visit classes where students who might be interested would be (and where those students could see you), and get it cross-listed, if possible.
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