Wednesday, June 04, 2008


The Class Must Go On

Every so often I read or hear about something so obvious, and so brilliant, that I actually get mad at myself for not having thought of it first. This is one of those times.

According to this article in Community College Week, Tallahassee Community College in Florida (and certain programs at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana) has started a 'no cancellations' policy for scheduled classes. Once a class is on the official schedule, that's it. If it only attracts half the usual minimum, so be it. The idea, apparently, is to improve degree completion rates, since last-minute class cancellations make degree completion harder, especially for working adults whose schedules are delicate in the best circumstances.

The article mentions the intended benefit:

“[at Tallahassee CC] student retention has increased about 2 percent every year since the guaranteed schedule was introduced in 2004, although [the academic VP] declines to say whether the policy is the primary reason. Financial aid has also grown appreciably, another indicator students intend to stick around.”

Not too shabby. The revenue from a two percent annual increase in retention can certainly cover the occasional small section. It's true that correlation isn't causation, but I can also attest that retention gains of that magnitude, sustained over several years, are rare, and not to be sneezed at.

The article also mentions some unintended benefits. With a fixed schedule, it's easier to attach faculty names to sections. (Fewer sections are taught by “Professor Staff.”) Which means that it becomes easier to suss out which faculty attract students and which faculty repel them. The folks at Tallahassee claim that they've only used this knowledge for good (mentoring) rather than evil (mindless number-driven purging), though it could probably go either way.

The greater benefit, though, accrues to adjuncts. Since full-timers have to 'make load' one way or another, they're often given the sections that everybody knows will run. That means that the adjuncts get the classes that may or may not make it in a given term. One of the many banes of adjunct life is prepping a class that doesn't run. In most cases, if it doesn't run, you don't get paid, even if you busted your hump on a new preparation. But with a guaranteed schedule, an adjunct who is assigned a class can be confident that it will run. That increases the incentive for preparing thoroughly, which can only benefit the students. It also gives Tallahassee an edge in recruiting adjuncts, since unlike the local schools with whom it competes, it can guarantee that its classes will actually run.

As any administrator can tell you, enrollments at a given cc aren't identical from year to year. The way Tallahassee handles that is by holding 'shadow sections' in reserve, and adding them as the already-scheduled classes fill. So the first print run of the schedule won't match the last, but any changes will only be additions. The idea is that you don't bump students who have already registered. Given the choice between 'standby' status and getting bumped, they've made the judgment call – probably correctly – that standby status is less disruptive. Once you're in, you're in.

In mulling over how this would work on my campus, I could envision the first year being a train wreck, but the long-term effect being real improvement.

Departments compete for classroom space, especially during prime time. One way they've done that has been by scheduling sections that may or may not run, just in case. It's individually rational, but collectively destructive. But if they knew they'd actually have to follow through on everything they tried to offer, some of the space conflicts would probably evaporate as 'just in case' sections go away. There would be a nasty learning curve during that first year, but it would be mostly temporary.

It would also allow departments to 'pinwheel' low-enrollment classes. Instead of trying to offer Nuclear Poetry every semester and usually canceling it, they could commit to running it every other Spring. If it still ran with only three students, there would be an obvious opening to take a long, hard look at the class.

So here's a relatively easy reform that would save administrative headaches (I hate hate hate the pre-semester conversations with Chairs in which we guesstimate which classes will make the cut), reduce faculty anxieties, improve course preparation, improve adjunct recruitment, allow students to plan ahead, and increase retention rates. There's gotta be a catch.

Wise and worldly readers, help me out on this one. What's the catch?

Some of the sections that we cancel have 0 students enrolled. I'd be pretty jealous of someone who got paid for teaching 0 students.

(This happens because we schedule sections two years in advance, and there's no good way to predict the number of new freshmen or how many of them will place into which level of math.)
Yeah, but their course evaluation scores would be terrible.
One downside would be for adjunct faculty if the college decided to pay adjuncts "by the student" or even "half pay" for classes that had very low enrollment. This has happened to me both in online and on campus courses. Usually the minimum runs about 6-8 students. I've started classes with anywhere from 7-11 students and ended up with the minimum and had to take half pay or worse, a specific very low fee "per student." This situation is not good and definitely not worth my while to drive to campus to teach (especially with the rising cost of fuel in recent months). Online it's not so bad because at least I don't need to commute to work (beyond the kitchen and office!!). But still, it takes a significant chunk of time to teach the minimum number of students for far less pay.

Most schools will end up playing with salaries in this way for adjuncts and while we may be guaranteed a "class" we are not guaranteed a set salary for teaching.

I have turned down classes at one or more schools after being promised classes at another school. The classes ended up with a minimum of students and I made one quarter or less of the salary I would have made had I taught at the other schools.

Adjuncts get the short straw somehow or another and this is just another way for the college to retain students at a much lower cost to the college.

I am somewhat suspect of the connection between the policy and the retention rate. However, it may be a worthwhile thing to do on its own anyway. It is possible you could sell it based on retention and then if that did not materialize over time the other benefits would have taken root so the change would stick.

I guess the downside would be possible cost. It wouldn't be *too* terribly expensive to run very small classes on occasion (especially if taught by adjuncts), but if it happened a lot, that would get expensive. We are also stewards of taxpayer money; I feel like our local taxpayers have a pretty good handle on the value of the community college, but I can see some taxpayer upset if they're paying for two-person sections at the CC-level. I can also see some talking heads exploiting that factoid to cut funding for CCs.

This is on a slightly different topic, but some of these classes like Nuclear Poetry have two natural audiences (at least where I'm at) -- students going 2+2 and taking electives at CC without considering transfer, because they're viewing it as part of an overall college experience where they should take what interests them; and adults who just think it sounds interesting, though they're not in a degree or career program. The trouble is adults-just-interested are night-and-weekend people, and 2+2 teenagers are day people. I'd like to see us try to offer some of these liberal arts and social sciences electives at our downtown campus, where adults-just-interested could WALK OVER during lunch for a 50-minute class; we try to keep our daytime academics on the main campus (downtown campus tends towards tech training) so the full time students can be in one spot all day, but I really wonder if some of these odder electives would run if we did them downtown and made the 2+2s drive so the adults-just-interested could walk and do it on their lunch hour.
*"without considering transfer"

Without considering transfer on that specific class, I meant. We get a lot of 2+2 students who COULD afford the state U for all 4, but are with us for 2 years to save money anyway; they tend to take some electives outside their distribution requirements without being worried about whether those transfer in as anything but a "general elective." (In the summer, too, we get a LOT of 4-years home for the summer picking up a general elective.)
At my place we would market this as a "Completer" tool rather than as a "Retention" tool. Of course, my particular campus has a Proprietary U focus rather than a transfer/general studies focus.

We've had a defacto policy of offering certain high-end classes (third semester calculus, the calc-based physics class I teach) on a fixed schedule since long before I was hired. The rationale was to attract (and retain) students who want to go into engineering at a nearby Uni.

When I was hired, it was nice for me to know that I would be teaching that class rather than Nuclear Poetry (although that does sound like it would be fun until it was time to grade the poems). It also helps me "grow" the course, since I can promise a student that they will be able to take a certain combination of classes in certain semesters. It also makes us look more like a regular university, where raw numbers ensure that certain classes will always be offered.

On the cost side, I think we were only close to the threshold that would cancel a class one time, and there were 50 kids in another section that made up for that. I think enrollment in the intro calc sections covers any extra cost of the advanced ones.

The catch must be a lot of extra work for administrators. It sounds like they crunch a lot of data to put together to decide exactly which 1500 sections to offer. The 'train wreck' you refer to, DD, might look more like an 80 car pileup on an LA freeway! But you could try adding some rationality to your scheduling system by simply tracking the history of which sections don't make over the past years and giving those a lower priority for grabbing classrooms at prime times compared to classes (and profs?) that always fill their quota.

I guess another catch would be that turnover at the Dean level might put a monkey wrench in the gears. How long did it take you to get up to speed at your present CC?
This makes a lot of sense to me -- it takes risk away from folks who hurt a lot from it (adjuncts and students) and puts it with folks who can absorb it much more easily (departments and colleges).

A 0 student enrolled course could still be canceled. Perhaps you could offer any instructor so cursed 50% pay in order to make up for the lack of work.
Turn things around. The real question is: What's the rationale for canceling classes that don't make?

Not every institution does this. My youngest went to a small Women's College where she several times found herself in a two-person class (I think once a one-person class). The college had very few adjuncts, so there was no reason to cancel low-enrollment classes. The instructor would be paid anyway, would just get more time for research.

The practice of canceling low-enrollment classes is a consequence of the widespread use of contingent faculty. And I doubt it was even thought out. It must have seemed an obvious way of saving (a very small amount of) money: cancel classes where the tuition paid won't cover the adjunct's fee. No-one asked what the non-immediate costs were.
Here's a real downside, based on my experience at a 4-year institution.

If we had a "no-cancellation" policy, some programs/departments/schools would take it as a license to add sections. A consequence would be an overall decline in students/section and an increase in instructional cost/student.

This in fact happened at my institution, in a slightly different form. For the no'no-cancellation" policy to work, someone has to be aggressively minitoring the schedule, to make sure that no one is abusing things.
So long as some checks and balances are in place (i.e. for the zero enrollment sections), then I don't see a lot of downsides. The two groups that benefit the most are students (yippee!) and adjuncts (yippee!). If a boon of CCs is supposed to be flexibility, then having a properly functioning no cancellation policy fits the mission: the institution is accommodating as many as are willing to commit.

And then, the potential for smaller classes---for smaller student-teacher ratios. That's great.

I just love it that the adjuncts *can't* get screwed by this. - TL
There's the unspoken side of this, though--"enrollment management." No way, no how at a CC will under enrolled sections be allowed to proliferate--productivity would plummet. I think a no-cancel policy is great for students, but all it means for faculty is that the "cancellations" are front-loaded--the canceled sections won't make it onto the schedule in the first place. And since FTers need to have their loads, who will lose out? PTers. I argue it's better to not be assigned a class and plan accordingly than to have a class cancel at the last minute, but PT instructors will lose sections.
Those zero-student classes have still been prepped by the instructor—to be fair, you're going to need a cancellation fee, unless they are cancelled far enough in advance.

What does this do to the costs for the institution? Instructors must still be paid, facilities are still required (even if the cleaning is a bit easier), heat and lights are still needed… it sounds like a more expensive policy. Where does the money come from?
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I'm a bit late to the conversation, but here's the situation at my university:

We grads are unionized, and so by union contract, once I was offered and accepted an instructorship position for summer 2008, they must fufill the contract. If they cancel the class I'm supposed to teach, I must be given a comparable position, or paid for not teaching. Because I have be given a "special topics" class of my own design, there are no comparable classes.

The problems 1) incentive. Right now, there are 3 students enrolled. As a grad student (research research research!!) there is no benefit to me for drumming up higher enrollment. Go ahead. Cancel the thing. Pay me to do my research!

2) Because it costs the uni the same to run the course or not (I get paid either way), it's in their best interest to run it. At least 3 people will be happy. However, there are HUGE pedagogical problems. This course is designed (and many, many hours have been spent creating) a discussion-oriented, group-collaborative learning environment. That can not work with 3 students. In such a case, either I have revamp the class completely (Yes, completely--don't fight me on this) for no money, or the students are in a class that is inappropriate. Meaning that they won't learn the material they signed up to learn.

To me, aside from selfish point #1, point #2 seems the most damning. If students aren't learning, what's the point of the class?
I could rant to days, DD. Suffice it to say that this is one of those ideas that just works in theory. ;-)
You can get round the low enrollment thing by taking a longer-term view of it. If the numbers on a course aren't sufficient, then the course doesn't run *next* year.

That takes care of the administrative worry that they are wasting money on low-enrollment classes.
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