Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Capturing the Wouldas

Has anyone out there figured out how to quantify the number of students who would have signed up for a given class if seats were available?

We don’t have a system for waiting lists, which would be the most obvious way.  I’m told, by people who have worked in places that had waiting lists, that they’re nightmares to manage.  Apparently, when the waitlists are automated, students will game the system by signing up for far more classes than they actually intend to take, and then cobbling together the most amenable schedule they can at the last minute.  As a result, the waitlists are full of people who don’t really mean it.  And if you put them in automatically and force them to back out again when they’re clogging the system, you create a manual processing nightmare in financial aid.

If you keep manual waiting lists, the issues are even worse.  Say a section is capped, and full, at 32.  You keep a list of five students who want ‘in.’  A student drops, thereby opening a seat.  But before you -- the holder of the list -- notice, another student has gone online and captured the seat.  That student has effectively leapfrogged your list.  Once word gets out that that’s possible, you might as well not have waiting lists at all.

Because we don’t have an elegant way to handle those dilemmas, we don’t have wait lists.  Instead, we have classes that fill, classes that run below top capacity, and classes that get canceled for low enrollment.  (We don’t run tiny classes on a pro-rata basis; that was an institutional decision made years ago.)  When we have to cancel small sections, we try to do it late enough to be sure they wouldn’t have filled, but also early enough to be able to find reasonable alternatives for both the professor and the students.  It’s a necessarily frustrating and imperfect process, since it involves guessing about potential demand from late registrants.

After some students get shut out of cancelled sections, we start to hear about students who would have taken x if seats had been available.  Some students are relatively vocal, others just mutter things to someone in passing, and others take to social media.  But it’s hard to tell how many students fall into the “woulda” category for a specific class.  Volume of complaint is a terrible indicator, given that some students are louder than others, and some of the loudest complainers have the most constraints on their schedules.

The issue was less urgent when we were bursting at the seams with students.  At that point, the major challenge was just adding capacity within severely slashed budgets.  Now, though, as the 2009-10 surge recedes and we’re looking at a decade or more of declining numbers of high school grads in the area, it’s becoming more important not to leave enrollments on the table.

Online classes make the question somewhat easier, since it’s far less challenging to add server space than to add classroom space, and there’s no issue of timeslots.  But we still need faculty, and still need to be able to afford to pay them.  Online courses help, but don’t solve the entire problem.

I’m guessing that the most sophisticated online merchants track more than just purchases; they also track attempted purchases that fell short, people who just looked (what IRL we call “window shopping,” but I don’t know what the online equivalent is --- browser shopping?), and what people defaulted to when a given item wasn’t available.  But I don’t know of any ERP systems that do that.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those in enrollment management -- has anyone out there found a realistic and helpful way to track the “woulda” enrollments?