Tuesday, July 31, 2012


The Last Future

I’m just old enough to remember when evening classes were the hotbed of enrollment growth.

Back in the late 90’s, when the economy was booming, many employers had programs that paid for employees to take classes at night.  I made a habit of teaching at least one night class per semester, even after moving into administration, just because the night students were so good.  They were mostly older, and for whatever academic rawness some brought with them, they had drive.  They were on a mission, and as any teacher can tell you, that’s half the battle.

Now, evening enrollments are struggling.  Employer reimbursements are much scarcer than they once were.  (That’s why Amazon’s new program was newsworthy.)  Adult student enrollments are being cannibalized by online programs.

Oddly, while evening programs are struggling, day programs aren’t.  The most traditional offerings are as solid as they’ve ever been.  From mid-morning to early afternoon, the place is packed.  (Summer is an exception.)  The traditional-aged students like to take classes in the morning and early afternoon so they can go to their jobs in the late afternoon and evening.  And adult students who work during the day are often happier to go online than they would be to schlep to campus after work.

I’ve seen the shift on the student support side, too.  As recently as a few years ago, the active discussion was about evening coverage in the various offices.  Now, it’s much more about developing online chat capability, and making sure that we have enough tech-savvy people in each area at the right times.  Chat software doesn’t help if there’s nobody at the keyboard.

We still have evening programs, of course, but we’re in that awkward transitional phase when the old method is declining but still important, and the new one still isn’t universally accepted.  So we run both, with all of the support costs that entails.  

Even weekend classes have been slow to take off.  It wasn’t all that long ago that evenings and weekends represented the new frontiers.  Now they seem like landlines in a cellular age; still useful for limited purposes, but not where you’d put new resources.  For a while, weekends looked like the Next Big Thing, but they never quite made it.  Online courses have supplanted them.

Now the major challenge with online programs is moving from an “encourage the early adopter” mode to serious scale.  In the early years, we built the online offerings based on individual interest and enthusiasm, and we’ve basically added layers to that since.  But we’re at the inflection point now where it’s just not reasonable anymore to run the online area as an experiment.  It has become an integral part of our offerings, and it’s growing, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of our offerings.  That means that we can’t just rely on volunteers anymore.  Some of the holdouts will have to adapt to the new modality, even if they’d really rather not.  That will bring its own set of diplomatic challenges, but the enrollment is where the enrollment is.

The most traditional offerings are still strong, and the most futuristic ones are strong.  Last year’s future is where we’re hurting.  Seems like there’s a lesson in there somewhere...

My first semester at the institution from which I recently rietired was in the fall of 1987. I had two sections of intro to macroeconomics, one in the early afternoon, one at 5:30. The afternoon section had about 25, the evening section about 60.

Slowly over the intervening 25 years (and it was slowly, gradually, but steadily) things reversed. The last few years before my retirement, the day sections averged about 50 and the envening sections 20 (or less).

This has generally at that institution, at least in the business school. Evening enrollments were around 60% of the total in the late 1980s and are now less than 25%.

The difficulties this causes in scheduling (and staffing), particularly in required upper-division courses, is huge. In effect, when we can offer only a single section of an upper-division course, wehave to choose between making it impossible for students who work days or inconvenient for students who'd rather be home in the evenings.

My take is that our student body shifted (gradually) from mostly part-time with full-time jobs to mostly full-time with part-time jobs. Also from a mdeian age of about 28 (1987) to about 22 (2011). I'm not sure what has been driving this, or what to do about it, but it creates scheduling nightmares.

Yet another reason I'm glad I have retired.
Talk about being behind the curve... My institution just decided student services people shoudl be available late (8:00 pm) one night a week.

What administration doesn't realize is that every service we offer can be either accomplished or requested online.

Lesson? Looks like a classic control systems problem where feedback is too slow. The robot keeps missing the widget. Scheduling, not to mention good course design, can be like that.

What I would keep an eye on is cost. Our overhead for on-line students (why call it "distance" when most live in town) seems to grow as the program grows. We don't have anyone in an "office of classroom education", beyond one person who handles calls when a projector burns out, but the other? Wow.

Since we see a lot of traditional age students taking early evening classes (some with afternoon-evening schedules, but some with morning-evening schedules), I suspect there are a lot more work/school options than 8-5 followed by school and part-time work on the evening bar/restaurant shift. It's too bad the late afternoon (4-ish) slot doesn't generate any interest, because it would sure help with parking!

Maybe there is a way to use social media or that much-vaunted CMS to find out when students taking a class on line would have taken it f2f. Still a semester late, but at least collect the data. It might just be child care, since I also remember an experiment with day care for student's young children.
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