Wednesday, September 23, 2009

 

Scaling Up Fast

This September has been a lesson in what happens when you try to scale up really quickly, with less money.

On balance, things have gone better than expected. The parking situation hasn't been easy, but it hasn't been nearly as bad as some of us (hi!) expected. We've managed to find most of the adjuncts we hoped to find, and have become really good at maximizing the use of space. We've managed to do all this without raising class size caps, which I take as a personal victory. And we haven't had layoffs thus far, which is great.

(Before the inevitable flaming, yes, yes, I know, adding adjuncts isn't as good as adding full-timers. Nobody here disputes that. But with the hacks we've been taking from the state, simply holding onto the full-timers we have is the budgetary equivalent of a triple-gainer.)

Now that we're past the initial shock, though, the subtler gaps in our preparation are starting to show.

When you add sections, you hire more people to teach them (or you give additional pay to people you already have to teach them). You can increase staffing -- even if only on the cheap -- to meet (most of) the added demand in the classroom.

It's the out-of-the-classroom stuff that's harder.

The folks in Financial Aid are swamped, and talking openly about simply closing the office a couple of days a week just to get through the backlog of applications. They really don't have the discretion simply to turn away enrolled students, but we haven't been able to get them new staff, either.

The library is unusually full, especially since many students heard the warnings about parking and started getting to campus earlier. Unsurprisingly, when they have a chunk of time to kill before their first class, many of them find their way to the library. As a result, the computers in the library are receiving far more use than they ever have, and students who need to write papers on them are sometimes reduced to the indoor equivalent of hovering. So far, they've been remarkably good sports about it, but it's still September. I wouldn't be shocked if people got a little jumpier towards the end of the semester.

Academic advising is soon to become a problem. Faculty have set numbers of students they're supposed to advise, but their numbers haven't increased with enrollments. We have an embarrassing number of students now without a named advisor yet, since there's simply nobody around with room to take them. Some adjuncts advise, for which they're paid extra, but it seems that we're pretty close to the limits of that. Some full-time staff advise, but there, too, the number of hands on deck simply hasn't increased, and their other duties are either the same as before or even more than before. We just don't have the spare capacity, and doubling people's advising loads would have predictable effects on the quality of their work.

Even the local buses are struggling. We added huge numbers of students, especially at historically unpopular timeslots, and told them parking would be tight. They heard us, and took buses. The bus company didn't hear us. Lesson learned there.

Wise and worldly readers on campuses with abrupt enrollment booms -- what quirky consequences have you seen? I'm hoping that we can draw enough lessons from this to be better prepared next time.

Comments:
If I recall the start-of-year meeting correctly we had a 40% increase in enrollment (I'm pretty sure this compares summer semester to fall semester, so year-over-year probably wasn't quite so severe).

I work in the IT department, and as normal many of our instructors failed to follow our instructions to turn in new software requests in a timely manner. The (probably) predictable result is that when we started receiving our second-week "OMGthiscriticalapplicationismissingyoumustinstallitnowsoourpoorstudentscan _leeearn_!!" emails, we've discovered that the rooms are booked solidly from 8am-10pm.

We're also finding that rooms with 20 computers are frequently being used by classes with 22-23 students, so even if every computer worked there still wouldn't be enough. Our hardware budget hasn't been growing fast enough either: while we're supposed to replace 25% of our computers each year, we're only replacing about 5% of the classroom systems and somewhat less than that for the faculty/staff. Everything else is going to new classrooms and employees, so the old hardware is being kept in service, with ever-increasing workloads.

I'll just toss out for laughs the comment from another region's faculty that they'd like "a minimum of 97% availability per classroom, at all times." As a reminder, most of our classrooms have either 20 or 24 computers :)
 
We are up more than 25% above last Fall, with an attendant 20% cut in our State allocation (you do the Math). During the summer, we broke ground on a new building that will end up losing us a few hundred parking spaces (you do the Math). I can no longer park on campus - I park across the highway in a strip mall lot that we leased.

It sounds like our Financial Aid office is in the same mess. Students have been dropped from classes for non-payment because their financial aid wasn't processed quickly enough. Once the aid comes through, these students try to re-enroll, but find that their spot has now been taken.

And yes, we too have dipped deeper into our Associate (read: adjunct) pool. Most of these folks are long-time employees, but we have hired a few without doing sufficient, ahem, due diligence. The result is an uptick in student complaints about poor instructors.

It sounds like we are at least in better shape than some of our neighboring CCs. Each day I get frantic emails from Deans begging if I can send anyone who knows how to teach Math or Chemistry.
 
Heh. Since I'm at one of the state U's in Fool's Gold State, our enrollment is considerably *down*. Of course, we didn't rehire 2/3 of our contingent faculty, so everyone who is still here is drowning in students.

But, I anticipate that there will be more parking, more computers available at the library, and shorter lines at the blecchhy fast food places at the Student Union. Somehow, I don't find all this to be a fair trade.
 
Early retirement for the old folks, I say!!! Get rid of 'em and save money to boot!!!
 
FinAid is one of those places where you can be really penny-wise and pound-foolish. A lot of application-processing is really routine; is there any way to set up a camp of hastily trained support staff on the weekend, supervised by experienced folks who do the harder stuff on the weekend or something?
 
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