Wednesday, August 06, 2014


Battlefield Decisions

Every August, this happens.  It’s time to start making decisions about which sections are likely to enroll enough students to run, and which need to be cancelled.

If you’ve never been in on a meeting like that, you may picture it something like this:

Dr. Evil (stroking cat): Prof. Doe really loves this class, but he looked at me cross-eyed once.  Screw him!  Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Group: SCREW HIM!  (maniacal laughter ensues, punctuated by flashes of lightning)

The truth is more pedestrian.  

Dean: This is the only daytime section of this class.  

VP: Is it a program requirement?

Dean: Yes, for the Nuclear Basketweaving option.

Academic Advisor: That timeslot usually fills in late August.

VP: Okay.

These decisions are never fun.  You don’t appreciate how many variables are in play until you get down to cases.  Suddenly, every bright-line rule has an extenuating circumstance, mandates conflict with each other, and much hinges on educated guesses about enrollment during the rest of August.  Could the students in the evening section move to online?  Is this part of someone’s full-time load?  Is the course required for the major?  What if it doesn’t run?  Do other courses fulfilling the same requirement still have seats?  Does it have prerequisites that make a ninth-inning rally unlikely?  Does the student population for that class tend to register late?  What’s the pattern over the last few years?

All of which makes perfect sense, as long as it isn’t your class.

We don’t cut off enrollments until right before classes start, so the enrollment figures we have now won’t be the final ones.  That necessarily involves some projection.  Will the twelve students become fifteen, or is the section stuck at twelve?  Since we can’t replay the scenarios later, there’s no way of knowing whether a section we cancelled early would have rallied at the last minute.  We probably get some of them wrong, but there’s no way of knowing the ones that would have rallied.   We only see the inevitable few that we thought would rally, and didn’t.

When I’ve discussed this sort of thing in the past, people have responded that Data Analytics would save us.  I’m a fan of carefully-applied data, but it works much better in the aggregate than in individual cases.  If enrollment is down, say, two percent across the college as a whole, that two percent is not evenly distributed.  And last year’s pattern may not match this year’s.  (The major countertrend is the move to online enrollments.  That magnifies the decline in onsite enrollments.)  Analytics might tell me that there will be a general downward drift in, say, English, but it won’t tell me whether the 2:30 section on Tuesday will rally or not, any more than the latest public opinion poll will tell me what Dave thinks.  

And then there are the qualitative issues.  If a particular, though small, cohort of students has been jerked around for a couple of semesters, there’s an argument for giving the benefit of the doubt this time.  A brand new program will often need a little time to find its constituency.  And there are always the small end-of-sequence classes that students in a given major need for graduation.  We’re getting better at handling those, but they’ll probably never go away completely.

In a more perfect world, we’d have a long gap between the close of enrollment and the start of classes, so we’d be working with fixed numbers.   Alternately, enrollments would be easily and consistently predictable from year to year, preferably with sustained and gradual growth.  Getting really utopian, we’d have enough money, staff, and space that we could base these decisions entirely and only on academic considerations.  Alas, no.

The good news, having been through this at three different colleges now, is that I’ve honestly never seen this process used to “get” anybody.  That may be small solace when it’s your class that’s on the chopping block, but it’s true.  Battlefield decisions aren’t perfect, but we know which side we’re on.

You left out "end of sequence class needed to transfer". We protect at least one section for the few of these we have (mostly in STEM) so that students can have a multi-semester schedule with confidence they won't be jerked around. We also pick up some last-minute reverse transfers who need one.

The section-level data for those classes are amazingly stable, right down to fall/spring differences.

But I understand your problem, mainly because my dean is pretty open about the decision-making process when a class is borderline or next year's projections change. That helps a lot.
I got an email to cancel two classes just this morning. No, let me finish my week of open house events and then we'll see if enrollments haven't jumped. And no I'm not going to cancel that capstone class, not until the very last minute.
The scenario with Dr. Evil had me chuckling all morning long. Sort of reminds me of how I pictured tenure decisions being made back when I was a lowly assistant professor.

The department head enters a secret room (reminiscent of the one supposedly present at the Skull and Bones secret society) and he suddenly morphs into a Satanic figure, replete with horns and a forked tail. The tenured faculty members then file in, all of them wearing black hoods. At the table, each seat has a black ball and a white ball in front of it. At the center of the table, there is a vessel in the shape of a human skull. “We are here to consider the tenure candidacy of Dr Doe”, says the department head. “Time to vote”, says the satanic chairman. Each tenured faculty member then drops a black ball into the skull-shaped vessel. “Justice has been done!”, cackles the department head. The entire room then explodes with maniacal laughter, fires break out, and the smell of brimstone whiffs out of the room.
I'm not sure where your community college is, but I've not heard of classes being cancelled at our local community college for lack of enrollment. The cutting of the budget has resulted in so many more students than classes that can be offered that most remaining classes have waiting lists. (My son tried to register for a chem class as a high school student, but by the time the high school students were allowed to register, even the waiting list was full for all chem sections.)

At UCSC, course decisions have to be made about a year ahead of time, long before enrollments are known—large classrooms are scheduled about 18 months ahead of time.

In rare instances we can add another section to a course (generally only at 8 a.m. or 7 p.m., since all our classrooms are in use in prime time), but we don't generally cancel classes even if enrollment is smaller than expected.

It can be very difficult to predict enrollment—I had one class last year that was being offered for the second time, and I expected 30±10 students, but got only 14. We taught it anyway, since it was becoming a required class in the curriculum revision. I have no idea whether to expect 15 or 40 when it is taught next Spring, but parts and tools for the lab have to be ordered about a month before class starts, when enrollment has just opened.
Battlefield decisions, indeed! I (don't) fondly remember the time that our VP attempted to institute an ironclad rule that classes under 15 students would be canceled two weeks before the term started. We ended up having to add so many caveats to it, that the rule became essentially meaningless.

As noted, there are SO many variables to consider. For example, our Math Department always takes at least 5 students over the enrollment cap in every single wait-listed course. They rightfully then have the expectation that the occasionally under-enrolled class will still run.

The answer is to develop clairvoyance sufficient to project enrollments for the upcoming year. So far, that has not worked for me.

I don't understand how a capstone course would be open to cancellation, or what advising scheme would leave you unaware of how many students are supposed to be taking it in a given semester.


CCs in California are a special case because, as I understand it based on things I learned viat this blog and my own, their budget is set externally. They can't add a class based on tuition alone like my college does. FYI, Dean Reed is at Holyoke CC in Mass, whereas I am in a totally different (but not CA) region of the country. We both plan class sections based on past performance scaled to current enrollment, and many sections are tuition dependent in that the instructor is not paid from state funds in any way.

I've linked to an old blog article that is relevant to enrollment at CA CCs.
CCPhysicist - At my SLAC and in my major, the assumption was that everyone graduated at the end of the Spring semester. The Capstone classes were scheduled around that assumption. It made a lot of problems for the one student in my year who'd been organized enough otherwise to graduate at the end of the Fall semester (and who was from overseas, so dropping by our campus to take one more class next term was really not going to work for her). They ended up basically running her through one on one with an advisor, I think. I don't know how early she started discussing this with the department, since we weren't close.

I could see a larger school having an off-cycle Capstone for students like her if they usually had enough to make it work and not always knowing who was going to graduate early (or show up for one more term if they didn't make it last Spring rather than dropping out), but it would seem like something you'd have to have a plan B around if it didn't run, since you shouldn't jerk students around about whether or not they can graduate at the end of a given term. If that plan B is one on one advising them through a Capstone project instead of a class, I could see a good argument for running the Capstone class with really small numbers since that would still be less work for the professor in question than meeting with, say, 10 students one on one to cover the same things.

Or some schools have multiple interdisciplinary Capstone options rather than one per major, and so maybe canceling one of them just means students don't get the one they were interested in but can still graduate on time. I think the state school in my city does it that way.
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