Monday, June 26, 2017

 

Pros and Cons of Pro-Rating


A biology professor at Youngstown State University turned down an overload class paid on a pro-rated basis, and for some reason, it made national news.  I’m sure I’m not the only community college administrator scratching his head at that one.

Pro-rating may or may not be a good idea, but it’s common practice, and there’s nothing unusual in a professor declining to teach a section on that basis.  I’m of divided mind on it, precisely because there are arguments on all sides.

Most colleges, at least at this level, have minimum numbers of students that a section is supposed to have in order to run.  That’s mostly for economic reasons.  Now that tuition is the majority of most community colleges’ revenue -- a historically new development -- paying full freight for lots of small sections would be a budget-buster.  One way to handle that is to have a relatively strict go/no-go cutoff number, with the usual exceptions for classes with different facility requirements.  (For example, clinical sections in Nursing always run below our standard cap.)  

The pro-rating to which I’m referring happens when a section of a class has lower enrollment than would normally be required to run.  Rather than cancelling the class outright, some colleges will offer the professor a “per-student” rate.  The idea is that if the cutoff is, say, fifteen, the fact that only ten signed up doesn’t necessarily mean the ten don’t need it.  (This typically only applies to sections taught on an adjunct or overload basis; I’ve never seen in-load prorating, though I suppose it’s conceptually possible.)

Pro-rating has its advantages.  Most basically, it makes it easier for the college to afford to run small sections.  That means fewer cancellations.  Fewer cancellations are a very good thing for students, since every last-minute course cancellation -- and they’re frequently at or near the last minute, since it takes that long to suss out the final numbers -- throws student schedules into chaos.  

Reducing the cost of small sections also makes it easier for professors’ pet courses to run.  At the community college level, faculty typically teach the same few courses over and over again.  Over time, that can get discouraging.  Pet classes often fall well short of the enrollment floor.  If not for prorating, they generally wouldn’t run at all.  Allowing a per-student rate means allowing the occasional passion project to see the light of day, even if only eight students sign up for it.

All of that said, though, the amount of prep time and class time for a section of ten is no lower than for a section of fifteen.  The grading is lighter, which can make a difference in classes with heavy writing assignments, but everything else is pretty much the same.  And even with grading, it’s tough to argue that the difference between twelve and fifteen is dispositive, but the difference between twenty and twenty-five is luck of the draw.  It’s equally difficult to argue with a straight face that an adjunct with a small section should get pro-rated while a full-timer with a small section gets full credit.  The work is the same.  

Given that community college students often register late, and that the add/drop period is relatively active, colleges that pro-rate have to answer the question of “as of when?”  Is the number for which someone gets paid the number on the first day of the semester, the first day of class, or the day (usually the tenth day) that the college reports its attendance numbers externally?  If it’s the first day of class, then people are getting paid for students who walk away after the first day and never come back.  If it’s the tenth day, then someone who thinks he’s getting paid for ten may find himself only getting paid for seven, at which point it’s too late to walk away without hurting students.  In a perfect world, numbers would be set weeks in advance, but that’s just not how students behave.    

From a management perspective, the most frustrating scenario is the professor who refuses a section at the last minute.  That’s a real danger of prorating.  But if we don’t prorate -- if every section gets full pay no matter what -- then we have to cut down the schedule pretty severely.  Is it better to offer to run a small section on a per-student basis, or to close it down entirely?

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Given late and fluctuating enrollment -- endemic to the sector -- and the lack of enough money to just make everybody happy, is there a more elegant way?  If not, which way would you recommend?  

Comments:
There are so many different pay and fee payment and funding models out there that it is hard find common ground in your article or that story. For example, our enrollment reporting date is irrelevant; only the final day to drop with a refund of fees is relevant. A student who withdraws after the fee deadline has still helped pay the salary of the instructor. In addition, enrollment reporting only really matters in the fall (and probably the spring) because our state appropriation is tied to that number. Summer enrollment is irrelevant to state funding because summer classes at my college do not get any state support. They are both pure profit or pure cost, depending on the enrollment numbers. Decision making on borderline classes is mysterious.

To further complicate things, our summer pay (like our extra course pay) is independent of our annual salary. It is higher than what adjuncts get, but looks better to a young faculty member than an older one. Which is good, because they need the money. We do not have any provision to pro-rate summer classes, but I think we do have per-student pay for some classes. (In that case, per student applies from 1 all the way to N, not just from 1 to 8 or 15, but N is still capped based on some workload limit we have.)

I'm not sure what I would do if offered that option. Some things scale with the number of students (like lab report grading), but exam writing and setting the rubric take as much time with 10 as with 20 and only takes a second step up when I need to go to two versions of the test. Exam grading isn't linear because there are efficiencies when multiple students get the same wrong answer. (No multiple choice for me.) My answer might depend on which students have signed up. Some are more fun to teach than others.

If you do have a policy of pro rating classes below some level, it better be done consistently and fairly! No special treatment or there will be hell to pay.
 
If you posit insufficient resources, there is no elegant way to handle it—someone is going to get hurt.

The Enormous State University solution is not to have any small courses (or to have them only as unpaid overload for salaried faculty).

The only small courses I've had in recent years have been done as overload (granted, my baseline teaching load is smaller than community college faculty loads).
 
While I'm sure I know the answer to this, I'm going to ask anyway. I assume that there are some courses that have upper enrollment limits (caps) also. What happens if 28 students sign up for a course that is capped at 25? Can the professor get paid extra for letting those students into the course? That would be the logical parallel to the pro-rating described here. Is there an objection based on principle (as opposed to just not wanting to spend the money/having the money to spend) to such an arrangement? Are there any examples of such systems?
 
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I am worrying about my transfer level Brit lit 1 course filling. For the sake of students who need it and my desire to teach it I suppose I would teach it pro-rated. Since I've taught it before, the prep time is not as much of an issue and in English the student count truly matters for grading. Not sure if the system would be "fair" but as far as I can tell, as an adjunct at a CC very little is "fair." It's all about what people are willing to do. (As far as I know, my school does not have the option. I am concerned about my fall schedule.)
 
One of my favorite Deans retired recently, which is sad - he was amazing, and did incredible things within the confines of the community college system.

One thing he did was to negotiate with the upper administration a deal wherein the department needed to average the minimum viable enrollment number, instead of having each individual course meet that minimum number. If the cap is, say, 33 people in a class, and I sign an extra 4 people in that means some other course can run at 4 people under the limit. For my department it worked out well because you can take on some extra load in the intro classes knowing that you'll be able to run a 200 level course that otherwise wouldn't make.
 
We do what Mike's college does, in a way. There are certain classes that we must offer, because students need them to graduate (government requirement) so they run even with 3-4 students in them. We also run 'boutique' classes that are narrowly targeted and have small enrolments. What we have to meet for minimum (and maximum) class size is an average, with 10% exceptions allowed.

Which is all very well, until you are the chap stuck with several of the 10% exceptions (on the overload side) every year. Marking 50 essays while a colleague is marking 4 (for the same salary) is not conducive to collegial feelings!
 
IMO everyone should know how much they are being paid before they start work.

But, for your problem, you could introduce a sliding scale, people who leave a course after teaching starts don't get counted in the salary as a full student loss but as a partial student loss.

So if there are 10 students on the first day of semester, 9 on the first teaching day and 8 on the 10th day of term, you could count that as
8*1 + 1*0.8 + 1*0.7
And you could charge students 0.25 for pulling out between the first day of semester and the 10th day.


 
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