Thursday, October 24, 2013

What if We Never Cancelled Classes?

I have to admit liking this idea a lot, even though I’m having trouble imagining how it would work.  Henry Ford Community College, in Michigan, has announced that starting next year, it will refrain from cancelling classes for low enrollment.  (It will retain the right to cancel classes for lack of faculty to teach them, which seems fair.)  The idea is to ensure students that once they’re in, they’re in.  

Apparently, the mechanism will involve posting a minimal schedule first, and then adding sections as needed.  That way, students won’t have classes cancelled out from under them.  They may not get optimal schedules, but the ones they get, they can keep.  (The article refers to adjuncts being “bumped off” from sections.  Maybe it’s a regional thing, but to me, “bumped off” has a more sinister meaning.)

I understand the appeal to students (and to faculty) of knowing that once a class is on the books, it’s running.  For students who have complicated lives, shifting days and times at the last minute can be a real hardship.  For faculty, the prep time that goes into a class that never runs is essentially wasted.  I get that.  I also see the academic appeal of the occasional unusually small class.  

And it would solve a persistent, nagging problem.  Cancelling underenrolled classes is a painful and imperfect process.  On the one hand, you want to do it as early as possible, in order to give students and faculty time to make whatever adjustments they need to make.  On the other, you want to do it as late as you can, to preserve the possibility for ninth-inning rallies in enrollment.  In either case, you’re basing decisions on best-guess predictions, which are necessarily imperfect.  I’ve been told by the occasional angry professor that his class “would have made it” if it had been given a chance.  There’s literally no way to know the truth of that one way or the other, which makes the discussion frustrating for both sides.

To make matters worse, we’ve found historically that when you cancel a class with, say, ten students in it, five of them don’t re-enroll in something else.  Students have scheduling constraints of their own; some will roll with the punch, but some won’t.  And a student who might cut a college some slack the first time it happens may walk away in disgust the third time it happens.

That said, though, the painful fiscal truth is that the college could not run a bevy of small sections without going under.  Enrollment pays bills.  Start dividing the same salaries by many fewer tuitions, and things get ugly fast.  So if the possibility of just throwing everything out there and running it is off the table, and you don’t want to go with late cancellations, you have to start with pretty minimal offerings and work your way up.  I presume that’s why HFCC isn’t going with a “run everything” model, but is instead going with “we’ll add it as we need it.”

The “add it as we need it” model seems to lend itself to other painful issues.  As things stand now, late staffing for a few sections causes issues with book ordering; if late staffing became more normal, I could see the bookstore issues mushrooming quickly.  The faculty problem of the “wasted prep” would be replaced by the faculty problem of the “instant prep”; it’s not obvious to me that that’s better educationally.  Adjunct recruitment would get much harder, since I assume that full-timers would have to be staffed first.  They would probably have to go with “tiers” of likelihood of backup classes: the most likely, the next most likely, and so on.  But getting good adjuncts is tough already, without trying to get someone to commit to a “fairly likely” section to run.  I foresee some defections from the ranks, as adjuncts rationally decide to take more concrete offers from other places rather than vaporous ones from HFCC.  Even room scheduling would have to be rethought.

Even as I struggle to comprehend the operational issues, though, I have to admit liking the concept and the spirit behind it.  I’ll be following this one with interest.  Henry Ford revolutionized the production process; maybe Henry Ford Community College will revolutionize the scheduling process.  I’m rooting for them.