Wednesday, July 19, 2017

 

The Cancellation Shuffle


Course cancellations are sort of like snow days: no matter what you decide, someone thinks you’re wrong.  And chances are, sometimes you will be.

We’re getting to that point in the summer when we start looking closely at section enrollments for Fall, and making go/no-go decisions on the small ones.  It’s a frustrating process, made all the more frustrating by the inevitable uncertainty.

For economic reasons, we need a decent number of students per section in order to make ends meet.  Some sections will have to run small for one or more of a panoply of good reasons: it’s the only section of a required class; it’s the only evening section; it’s the only section at that location; every other section is full; it’s the last course in a sequence and the students need it to graduate; it’s a clinical site.  Eating the cost of the necessarily small ones requires setting the default minimum slightly higher than a strict average, to compensate.  

In the community college sector, though, it’s not that easy.  (Folks in private industry can replace that with “the community college space,” if it helps.)  Students register in two big waves, with a lull in between.  The early wave happens when registration opens in the Spring.  The late wave happens in August, sometimes continuing into September.  Early to mid summer is much slower.

Optimizing the numbers, then, would mean waiting until the first day of classes.  

But that doesn’t work for the students whose sections got cancelled out from under them.  Even if there are seats available in other sections of the same course, they may not be able to adjust their schedules.  Late changes wreak havoc on financial aid, too, especially if they involve crossing the 12 credit threshold.  From a student perspective, it’s much easier to make changes with a month’s notice or more than abruptly at the start of the semester.

But our information a month or more in advance is pretty spotty.  And for faculty who are hoping that their sections will run, an early cancellation comes as a slap in the face.  The inevitable pushback comes in the form of angry declarations that “it would have made it if you had given it a chance.”  That’s probably true some of the time; it’s unprovable either way.  

If students registered earlier and stuck with their choices, we could optimize easily.  If we had peak enrollments, everything would run just because students would take whatever they could get.  (That happened around 2009-10.)  If we had infinite resources, we wouldn’t have to sweat small sections; if anything, we could see them as educational treats.  If enrollments were steady from year to year, we could settle into patterns.  But that’s not this world.

Data analytics hold some promise for helping with predictions, but not necessarily at the level of the individual section.  Knowing that overall enrollment is, say, four percent lower than the previous year doesn’t necessarily tell you whether the Tuesday afternoon section will run.  And we don’t have data fine-grained enough to predict that, at least at this point.  If someone has seen software that helps at the level of the section, I’d love to see it.

Wise and worldly readers, in the absence of either omniscience or a visit from the money fairy, is there a better alternative to the cancellation shuffle?  

Comments:
Well, I REALLY wish I had good answers to your question, because most of us feel your pain on an immediate basis.

Our latest faculty contract includes a payment (about $250) to any faculty member whose class section is cancelled less than a week before classes start. This seems eminently fair, as those teachers deserve some compensation for the work they did to prepare for the class. On the other hand, I sometimes cancel a section that might 'make it' if I sweated it out one last week, but I don't want to pay the late cancellation fee.

I do think that many students are not cognizant of the machinations we go through in deciding whether or not a class is a 'go'. Sometimes, students put off registering for a class because they know it has low enrollment, and they can therefore put off the moment when they have to pay their tuition. So often, I have a student in my office, outraged over my cancellation of the one class he needed (wanted?) to graduate. When I point out that he never even enrolled in the class, he tells me that he was waiting until the end of Summer to enroll, so he could pay later. So, it might help to encourage students to enroll early (during that first spike), and perhaps even offer incentives for early enrollment.

- ALF
Everett CC, WA
 
At the University of California, our problem is different—finding classrooms big enough to pack in all the students that the legislature (and our own non-teaching administration) is forcing us to take. We are often looking at the last minute for budget fixes that will allow adding another 200-student lecture for a course that is over-full rather than canceling small classes.

Some of our smallest courses are taught as overload by full-time tenure-track faculty (I taught a freshman seminar course that way for the past three years, but I won't be able to do it next year, as the main course I'm teaching is growing rapidly (from 30 students in 2015, 45 in 2016, 70 in 2017, to 100 in 2018) and I won't have the time for an extra course. I was very stretched this year handling it with only 70 students in my main course.

Small classes are usually run even if they don't fill up, but the course is changed afterwards to be run less often (alternate years) or indefinitely "suspended".
 
You could try having multiple cut-off points for running the course.

Three months out the enrollment has to be over 10 or cancelled.
Two months out the enrollment has to be over 20 or cancelled.
One month out the enrollment has to be over 30 or cancelled.

That way students know that they need to enroll early to get what they want.

It may have some perverse incentives - a student gets a friend to enrol in a low enrollment class so it will run knowing the friend is going to swap out at the last minute for a course s/he really wants.
 
Two of those comments above make me wonder if 90% of the students know the reason courses get cancelled. (Our Provost tried multiple cutoff points, but even the faculty didn't know what they were until the next semester.) If not, you are in the situation encountered in "Dr. Strangelove" where the Doomsday Machine was kept secret, thus eliminating its effect as a deterrent!

My college doesn't even think about cancelling classes until the fee payment deadline passes. Our students can sign up without any intention of actually taking the class, perhaps as a backstop if they don't transfer, or just forget to pay. That cuts it pretty close to start with.

We used to have the problem of deciding when to create a new section (that could end up filled with last-minute applicants who vanished almost as fast), but now we have those start 3 weeks into the year. (A twelve-week late-start semester.) With that scheme, we tend to have full sections of main-stream courses and disappointed late arrivals who often cannot enroll -- leading to a drop in enrollment.
 
Speaking of perverse incentives—we've encountered one with our registration priority system. Seniors will sign up for a course that they don't really want, and then take payment to drop the course at some odd hour (like 3 a.m.) so that a friend with lower priority can grab the slot as soon as it opens. This cheat only works because of very badly designed registration software that doesn't allow students to get on the waiting list until after all the students have had a chance for first-pass registration—students may be denied a slot in a full course, but a lower-priority student may be able to get a slot if one happens to open up.
(The reasoning for the delayed waiting list is to prevent students from using their priority slot to get onto waiting lists and then not be able to register for any courses that they need—the protection offered by this policy is probably less than the harm it does.)

The current (ugly) workaround is for the registrar to manually close classes when they fill up, so that no one can register even if slots open up, then re-open the registration once the waiting lists get turned on.
 
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