Monday, April 26, 2010

Breaking Even

I had a good discussion last week with a well-meaning professor who wanted to know why the minimum enrollment to run a section is higher than the break-even cost of paying an adjunct.

Her position was that another section doesn't add much marginal cost, and as long as you've paid the adjunct, what's the problem?

It was one of those "where you stand depends on where you sit" moments. I'll make it a multiple choice.

If another section doesn't add much marginal cost, and it generates enough tuition/fee revenue to pay the adjunct, what's the problem?

a. Nothing. The Administration is just unable to do simple math.
b. Nothing. The Administration just hoards the profits and rolls around in them in a locked vault, like Scrooge McDuck.
c. Slippery slope. If department x gets smaller sections, then department y will want them, too. After a while, there's nothing left to pay for the library.
d. Opportunity cost. If room 320 is devoted to a break-even section, it's displacing a larger section that would have met there. The difference is what pays for the library.
e. c and d

The correct answer is e. But that's largely beyond the purview of any given department. If a small psych section displaced a larger history section that would have met there, neither actually sees the conflict directly. Psych just gets its section, and history just gets told the rooms are full. But that doesn't mean the conflict isn't there. (That also explains why we're looser with minima in the summer; when the classroom would otherwise sit empty, the 'opportunity cost' argument becomes moot.)

Since it's impossible to forecast where every little micro-conflict will happen, most colleges (including my own) will set a default minimum enrollment for a class to run. The idea is to keep small classes from crowding out larger ones. Then, every semester, we deal with exceptions and requests for exceptions. It's messy but necessary. (Exceptions for small classes include single sections that are required for a major, 'safety valve' sections in which every other section of that course is full, and classes with facility or accreditation constraints, like Nursing clinicals.) Since students don't usually sign up for just one class, but instead for entire schedules, moving people around at the last minute is incredibly time-consuming and awkward; that's why we can't default to some sort of bidding or overbooking system. We have to get it (mostly) right the first time.

As with any system that uses blunt instruments to reach best-available (as opposed to optimal) solutions, it's clunky. As we get to the last few weeks before the semester starts and we have to make the "go or no go" decisions, there's some level of guesswork involved, and some of it will turn out to be wrong. Most of the decisions are made without regard to Excellence or Virtue or Beauty, just because they have to be. It's reductionist in the way that all scheduling is. But that's not out of indifference, tone-deafness, or malice; it's out of necessity. Scrooge McDuck has nothing to do with it.

Admittedly, that isn't as viscerally satisfying as a story with a clear hero and a clear villain. Break-even propositions rarely are.