Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Small Section Shuffle

“How many students does a section need to have to run?”  

Even after all these years, small-section triage is one of the worst parts of the countdown to a new semester.  It’s complicated and probabilistic, and nobody notices when you get it right.  

It’s based on both economic and educational realities.  A section has an instructor, and the instructor has to be paid.  Beyond that, the college has all sorts of indirect costs that have to be amortized over all of the sections: those range from basic overhead (utilities, physical plant maintenance, snow removal) to the parts of the college that don’t charge their own tuition (the library, advisors, counselors, IT, administration, etc.)  Covering those indirect costs requires that most sections pay not only for themselves, but contribute towards paying for everything else.  

In olden times, when tuition was a relatively small portion of the budget, this didn’t matter as much.  Decades of disinvestment have made it matter a lot more.

Additionally, a small section requires as much instructor time as a large one.  In most cases, it occupies a classroom that could have been used for a larger one.  So in addition to direct and indirect costs, there’s also opportunity cost.  Commit to too many small sections, and you crowd out bigger ones.  That impacts both student options and the budget.

Internally, disparate section sizes can raise issues of workload equity.  A professor with five sections of 30 students each may look askance at one with five sections averaging 15 each.  Even if total in-class time is the same, the amount of grading and informal student guidance scales approximately with enrollment.  Grading 75 papers takes less time than grading 150.

On the flip side, in some courses, too low a number becomes a quality issue.  If a Public Speaking class has four students, it doesn’t work.  Depending on the course, you may need critical mass to make it educationally worthwhile.

In a more perfect world, we’d have relatively steady enrollment from year to year -- ideally, maybe a steady increase of two percent a year or so -- so we could optimize sections.  When enrollments fluctuate more than that, especially in the downward direction, it’s a lot harder.  And declines aren’t evenly distributed.  

Here, we don’t have the luxury of knowing months in advance who has registered for what.  Students can, and do, register up to the last minute.  That means that if your standard cutoff is x, you’ll get to a week before classes start with sections showing x-2 or x-3.  You have to make your best guess as to which ones will make it.  Some of those guesses will be wrong, and some people with elephant memories will use those in future semesters to argue for smaller classes for themselves.

What factors matter?

  • If the class is cancelled, what happens to the students?  Is there another section at the same time (ideally) or a compatible time (less ideally) that could take them?  
  • Is it the only section of a required class?  That happens sometimes with 200-level classes in smallish programs.  
  • Is it the only evening section?  The only section at a given location?
  • For full-time faculty, is there something else for them to teach?  When you get down to the wire, a new prep is generally a terrible idea.  We try not to put full-timers in dicey sections, but again, fluctuations aren’t evenly distributed.  Sometimes a shortfall comes as a shock.
  • What precedent are you setting?

The chronic dilemma is that sometimes the factors conflict.  After the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and the obvious solutions implemented, and all sorts of staffing decisions made, there are always a few judgment calls to make at the end.  Indeterminacy can be bounded, but it can’t be eliminated.  Will the Thursday afternoon section climb, or is it stuck?  As Yogi Berra put it, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.

With enough of a fiscal cushion, we could run a few small sections as treats.  But that’s not where we are.

If we had more lead time, steady-state enrollment, and a reasonable fiscal cushion, these wouldn’t be nearly so difficult.  As it is, well....