Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Ask the Administrator: Pro-Rating for Small Classes

A new correspondent writes:

Our community college has a procedure that allows classes that would otherwise be subject to cancellation due to low enrollment run under certain circumstances and gives a formula for calculating a prorated salary.  The deans have the discretion of choosing to allow a course to run at full-pay or to follow the prorated pay formula, depending on the circumstances. Often these decisions involve trying to strike a balance of ensuring course availability for students with fiscal responsibility.
The prorated salary calculation is updated annually to reflect increases to our tuition rates and to account for cost of living adjustments to salaries. The other factors in the formula have not been reviewed in years and we’ve decided it is time to take a look at how this low-enrollment pay should be determined.  We also have been wrestling with how to increase consistency and we are reviewing the practices that guide decision-making for when we choose to apply the low-pay formula and when we let a section run at full pay.
I’m wondering if your wise and worldly readers can share experiences about how their institutions calculate prorated pay as well as any guidelines that are used to determine when an instructor is paid the full amount for a low-enrolled course vs. when pro-rated pay is paid.

By the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, we have a choice.  If we choose to pro-rate, the contract sets the terms by which to do it.  Or, we can choose to go with an all-or-nothing approach; if the class runs, we pay full freight.  If it’s too small, we just don’t run it.

We’ve gone with the latter, on the theory that the preparation that goes into a class doesn’t really vary with the number of students.  Pro-rating is consistent with the lighter grading load of a smaller class, but the time in class is still the same, and the preparation is mostly the same.  It just didn’t seem fair to run very small classes at small fractions of pay while the preparation time and time in class remain unchanged.

In some classes, there’s a pedagogical problem at small enough sizes.  A public speaking class with three people isn’t really a public speaking class.  If you start with a very small group, and have normal attrition, you can have some painfully quiet discussions.  

Institutionally, there’s also an issue of opportunity cost.  Devoting a classroom to a class of five means you don’t have that classroom to devote to a class of twenty.  (Put differently, in catering to five students, you’re disappointing twenty.)  Yes, the first time you cut the small section, it may seem like a pointless loss.  But when departments get the message that they can’t just run whatever they want, enrollments be damned, they start to pay attention to enrollments.  Over time, incentives matter.  We’ve forced ourselves to get much better at matching our offerings to student demand.  That’s always a moving target, to some degree, but at least we’re tracking the movement.

Of course, those are “macro” considerations.  On the “micro” level, there’s almost always an argument for any given class.  

Wise and worldly readers, you’ve been summoned by name.  Have you seen reasonably successful versions of pro-rating?  If so, how did they work?  Or are colleges better off just going with all-or-nothing?

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

We have a pretty successful system of predicting enrollment based on historical data. (It broke down when the slope changed suddenly from positive to negative a few years ago. Turns out there were no external data, like 9th grade enrollments, tied into it. Ooops.) If a regular course fades away for reasons other than poor teaching, it will likely get consolidated down to one semester per year or the projected size will be taken into account when planning schedules. Our system trades off small classes against larger ones so the total work load is taken into account, altough sometimes a small class is done as an overload on a pro-rata basis.

The main thing is that most of those decisions have already been made for next fall and spring as part of our budgeting process.
Pro-rating a class is another way to rip off adjuncts. If a FT/TT faculty has a class tat doesn't meet, they still get full salary (unless it is a summer class). But most classes at my campus that are in danger of not meeting are taught by adjuncts. As you correctly note: the prep is the same, and low enrollment can make participating, etc more difficult for the instructor. The only was workload is lessened is with grading, but even then, some classes (like math) may use scantrons or other auto-grade systems. Not so in English. It's bad enough to be paid piecemeal. To change the pay just before class starts due to low enrollment places even more of a burden on adjuncts.
I have gone down the "piece work" pro-rating compensation path, and it doesn't feel workable to me. We end up putting faculty in an untenable position of agreeing to accept a sub-par salary for the same amount of work.

What we have done instead, is worked out an enrollment 'deal' with faculty where they agree to take on an overload in one class in exchange for an 'underload' in another class. This seems fairer to me as the faculty member's compensations remains the same, and the workload remains about the same as well. Administratively, I feel OK about running the under-enrolled class because the average enrollment between the two courses is an acceptable number.
If I wasn't clear in my comment, what we do is the same as what Anonymous@12:25PM describes above. The only difference might be that we PLAN for that underload/overload situation based on historical data. That is how we have been able to promise that certain classes important for STEM majors will always be offered, and is also how we handle smaller honors classes.
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