Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ask the Administrator: Pro-Rating for Small Classes

A new correspondent writes:

Our community college has a procedure that allows classes that would otherwise be subject to cancellation due to low enrollment run under certain circumstances and gives a formula for calculating a prorated salary.  The deans have the discretion of choosing to allow a course to run at full-pay or to follow the prorated pay formula, depending on the circumstances. Often these decisions involve trying to strike a balance of ensuring course availability for students with fiscal responsibility.
The prorated salary calculation is updated annually to reflect increases to our tuition rates and to account for cost of living adjustments to salaries. The other factors in the formula have not been reviewed in years and we’ve decided it is time to take a look at how this low-enrollment pay should be determined.  We also have been wrestling with how to increase consistency and we are reviewing the practices that guide decision-making for when we choose to apply the low-pay formula and when we let a section run at full pay.
I’m wondering if your wise and worldly readers can share experiences about how their institutions calculate prorated pay as well as any guidelines that are used to determine when an instructor is paid the full amount for a low-enrolled course vs. when pro-rated pay is paid.

By the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, we have a choice.  If we choose to pro-rate, the contract sets the terms by which to do it.  Or, we can choose to go with an all-or-nothing approach; if the class runs, we pay full freight.  If it’s too small, we just don’t run it.

We’ve gone with the latter, on the theory that the preparation that goes into a class doesn’t really vary with the number of students.  Pro-rating is consistent with the lighter grading load of a smaller class, but the time in class is still the same, and the preparation is mostly the same.  It just didn’t seem fair to run very small classes at small fractions of pay while the preparation time and time in class remain unchanged.

In some classes, there’s a pedagogical problem at small enough sizes.  A public speaking class with three people isn’t really a public speaking class.  If you start with a very small group, and have normal attrition, you can have some painfully quiet discussions.  

Institutionally, there’s also an issue of opportunity cost.  Devoting a classroom to a class of five means you don’t have that classroom to devote to a class of twenty.  (Put differently, in catering to five students, you’re disappointing twenty.)  Yes, the first time you cut the small section, it may seem like a pointless loss.  But when departments get the message that they can’t just run whatever they want, enrollments be damned, they start to pay attention to enrollments.  Over time, incentives matter.  We’ve forced ourselves to get much better at matching our offerings to student demand.  That’s always a moving target, to some degree, but at least we’re tracking the movement.

Of course, those are “macro” considerations.  On the “micro” level, there’s almost always an argument for any given class.  

Wise and worldly readers, you’ve been summoned by name.  Have you seen reasonably successful versions of pro-rating?  If so, how did they work?  Or are colleges better off just going with all-or-nothing?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.