Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Class Must Go On

Every so often I read or hear about something so obvious, and so brilliant, that I actually get mad at myself for not having thought of it first. This is one of those times.

According to this article in Community College Week, Tallahassee Community College in Florida (and certain programs at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana) has started a 'no cancellations' policy for scheduled classes. Once a class is on the official schedule, that's it. If it only attracts half the usual minimum, so be it. The idea, apparently, is to improve degree completion rates, since last-minute class cancellations make degree completion harder, especially for working adults whose schedules are delicate in the best circumstances.

The article mentions the intended benefit:

“[at Tallahassee CC] student retention has increased about 2 percent every year since the guaranteed schedule was introduced in 2004, although [the academic VP] declines to say whether the policy is the primary reason. Financial aid has also grown appreciably, another indicator students intend to stick around.”

Not too shabby. The revenue from a two percent annual increase in retention can certainly cover the occasional small section. It's true that correlation isn't causation, but I can also attest that retention gains of that magnitude, sustained over several years, are rare, and not to be sneezed at.

The article also mentions some unintended benefits. With a fixed schedule, it's easier to attach faculty names to sections. (Fewer sections are taught by “Professor Staff.”) Which means that it becomes easier to suss out which faculty attract students and which faculty repel them. The folks at Tallahassee claim that they've only used this knowledge for good (mentoring) rather than evil (mindless number-driven purging), though it could probably go either way.

The greater benefit, though, accrues to adjuncts. Since full-timers have to 'make load' one way or another, they're often given the sections that everybody knows will run. That means that the adjuncts get the classes that may or may not make it in a given term. One of the many banes of adjunct life is prepping a class that doesn't run. In most cases, if it doesn't run, you don't get paid, even if you busted your hump on a new preparation. But with a guaranteed schedule, an adjunct who is assigned a class can be confident that it will run. That increases the incentive for preparing thoroughly, which can only benefit the students. It also gives Tallahassee an edge in recruiting adjuncts, since unlike the local schools with whom it competes, it can guarantee that its classes will actually run.

As any administrator can tell you, enrollments at a given cc aren't identical from year to year. The way Tallahassee handles that is by holding 'shadow sections' in reserve, and adding them as the already-scheduled classes fill. So the first print run of the schedule won't match the last, but any changes will only be additions. The idea is that you don't bump students who have already registered. Given the choice between 'standby' status and getting bumped, they've made the judgment call – probably correctly – that standby status is less disruptive. Once you're in, you're in.

In mulling over how this would work on my campus, I could envision the first year being a train wreck, but the long-term effect being real improvement.

Departments compete for classroom space, especially during prime time. One way they've done that has been by scheduling sections that may or may not run, just in case. It's individually rational, but collectively destructive. But if they knew they'd actually have to follow through on everything they tried to offer, some of the space conflicts would probably evaporate as 'just in case' sections go away. There would be a nasty learning curve during that first year, but it would be mostly temporary.

It would also allow departments to 'pinwheel' low-enrollment classes. Instead of trying to offer Nuclear Poetry every semester and usually canceling it, they could commit to running it every other Spring. If it still ran with only three students, there would be an obvious opening to take a long, hard look at the class.

So here's a relatively easy reform that would save administrative headaches (I hate hate hate the pre-semester conversations with Chairs in which we guesstimate which classes will make the cut), reduce faculty anxieties, improve course preparation, improve adjunct recruitment, allow students to plan ahead, and increase retention rates. There's gotta be a catch.

Wise and worldly readers, help me out on this one. What's the catch?