Friday, August 31, 2007

Slack or Squeeze?

As those last few students trickle in to last-minute registration, those of us who throw ourselves into the scrum at in-person registration have to get increasingly creative to help them assemble schedules.

Between flat-to-retreating public funding and an unexpected (and welcome!) enrollment bump, we're suddenly completely full in some of the evergreen disciplines. This is a good problem to have, but it's still a problem.

Late in-person registration is a different animal at a cc. This is when we get students who actually went away, but who quickly turned tail and came home when confronted with the reality of wherever it was that they went. (I asked a colleague who works very closely with many of these students if she could figure out what drove so many of them to retreat in a week. She mentioned several factors – homesickness, sticker shock, a sense of being completely overwhelmed – but no one factor dominated.) Although they didn't want to be where they went, they don't want to lose time, either, so we're the fallback option. We're cheap, we're local, and our credits transfer. The idea is to take some gen eds with us, get their lives back in order, then try again in a year or two.

There's considerable wisdom in this. Unfortunately, it only works when we still have seats.

Anybody who believes in tightly-constructed curricula should spend a day at late in-person registration.

What do you do with the student who places 'remedial' in both math and English when all of the remedial sections are full? What do you do with the prospective Nursing major when all of the biology and chemistry labs are full? What do you do with the kid who really doesn't care what he takes, as long as it's all transferable, but all of the usual suspects (psych, history, math, English, etc.) are stuffed?

Eric Klinenberg wrote a brilliant book a few years ago – Heat Wave – about a devastating heat wave in Chicago in the mid-1990's. (After Katrina, it seems eerily prescient.) Although the book was far more sophisticated than I can gloss here, one of his arguments was that many years of starving the human-services side of the public sector – in the name of either small government or more prisons – has left many agencies incapable of dealing with extraordinary circumstances. They've adapted to the point that they can typically still deliver adequate responses to ordinary cases, but anything non-routine throws them into chaos, since any slack in the budget was cut a long time ago. In normal times, slack looks like waste, and it makes a tempting target. But an agency without spare resources is unable to respond when the demands on it suddenly jump beyond the ordinary.

We're in an admittedly much less dire version of that dilemma. After years of shaky public support, we've squeezed most of the slack out of many of our systems. (For present purposes, I'll just 'bracket' tenure.) So when we get an unexpected enrollment bump – desperately needed, eagerly anticipated, and highly welcome – we don't have the resources to handle it as well as we should. It's as if the universe is calling our bluff. “You want more students? I'll give you more students. Now what are you gonna do?”

If we hadn't already ratcheted up our adjunct percentages, we could just hire a few more adjuncts in strategic areas and see if the new levels are spikes or plateaus. But we've already squeezed that resource just about as far as it will go. When I asked my English chair about adding a few sections, the response was “and they'd be taught by whom?” I didn't have an answer for that.

The squeeze on us, unfortunately, becomes a squeeze on the students. Academic advisors who can see around corners a little bit can help, but there are limits to that. A savvy advisor can juggle a few electives and maybe work around some prereqs, but at some point, the student needs what the student needs.

Late in-person registration is always about short-term fixes, but it's easy to lose sight of the long term. Over time, the way to handle extraordinary circumstances is to have enough slack in the system that you can deploy it when needed. That means avoiding the temptation to avoid difficult programmatic decisions by just cutting slack. If we didn't rely so heavily on adjuncts in normal times, we'd have the resource to call on when students appear out of nowhere at the last minute. But we've avoided those tough calls and followed the path of least short-term resistance. Now, when we're finally in a position to catch a demographic break, we're scrambling not to drop it.