Friday, August 27, 2004

Registration, Speed Limits, and Whining

Part of the sheer joy of being a manager during registration is manipulating the course caps (enrollment limits on any given section). By definition, this pisses absolutely everybody off, and is absolutely necessary.

Faculty want the smallest classes possible, both to increase potential attention to each student and to keep the grading load down. Students want small classes, as long as they, personally, can get in. (When they’re excluded by a low cap, they suddenly convert to fans of open enrollment.) VP’s of finance love huge classes, amortizing faculty salaries over the most tuitions possible. The fire marshall has something to say about class sizes, as does the dean of students, the marketing committee, etc.

About once a month, some highly-placed official asks me why we set a given cap at, say, 30, knowing full well that we’ll gradually inch it up to 35. Why not just start at 35 and not change it? That way, you’re not inadvertently punishing early registrants.

That’s the kind of superficially sound logic that seems compelling unless you actually know what you’re talking about.

One of the first laws of registration is that certain time slots are universally popular. (At my current institution, that’s Monday through Thursday, late morning to early afternoon.) They will fill immediately, no matter at what level you set the cap. Given limited faculty and limited rooms, you can run only so many of these. The next law of registration is that there is always some non-trivial number of students who will show up after you’ve hit the limit who absolutely, positively have to have that particular time slot, lest they fail to graduate, lose financial aid, lose their off-campus job, miss their carpool, question their faith, develop tremors, or have to get up before 9:00 a.m. These students say (sometimes sincerely) that if they can’t get that time slot, they can’t attend school at all.

Given the reality that most colleges are enrollment-driven, we really aren’t in a position to tell those students to take a hike. So we bite our lips and squeeze them in.

So initial course caps function like speed limits – you set them with the assumption that they will be broken. If you want people to drive 65, you post 55. If you want classes of 35, you set limits of 30. It’s sort of an opening bid. If I started at 35, I’d get 40.

By raising the burden of proof for the 31st student, I can drive some of those potential 31sts to take other sections – Fridays, early mornings, late afternoons, etc. – without which we’d be in deep trouble. Those who simply can’t take the other sections are invited to try their luck at a peculiar version of ‘queen for a day.’ In essence, we wind up rewarding student whining, which I’m convinced bleeds over into the classroom.

This makes absolutely nobody happy. I feel like a sellout every time I raise a cap, but I know that holding the line isn’t a realistic option. The faculty get mad because they take the initial caps literally, students get mad because they have to jump through multiple hoops or take less convenient times, the staff get crabby because this is a very labor-intensive method, and I get blamed all the way around. Yet nobody has the stomach to try the alternative, which is to tell the desperate students to come back in the future when they can get their stuff together.

This is part of the reason that administrators are so high on online courses. It isn’t that you can put more people in any given section – the amount of written feedback required really precludes that – but that you can get around the timeslot games. Since online courses are asynchronous, and don’t require classrooms, you can eliminate the timeslot shuffle. It’s hard to overstate the appeal of this to a harried dean.

I’m still not entirely comfortable with the ethics of all this – I’d much rather give the conscientious early registrant that 35th seat than some talented last-minute whiner – but until I’m allowed to tell students to take a walk, that’s the way it has to be.