Monday, October 13, 2014

4:00 Dinners

The Gates Foundation has issued a report suggesting that colleges could save millions by collapsing “extra” sections, and increasing enrollments in the sections that remain.

What, exactly, do they think we’ve been doing?

On the ground, I can attest that managing section enrollments is a conscious task every single semester.  The deans and I meet multiple times before each semester to gauge which sections are struggling, and to make difficult decisions about what runs and what doesn’t.  We’ve done that for years, and we’re not unique.

Over years of managing section enrollments, through a spike in 2009 and the regression to the mean afterwards, the key variables have become clear.  “Not having thought of that” is not one of them.

One is student interest.  Applying Gates’ metric to restaurants will make the point.  Many restaurants have patrons waiting at 7:00, but plenty of open tables at 4:00.  If only they could convince people to eat dinner earlier, look at the efficiency gains!

Well, yes, but most people don’t want to (or can’t) eat dinner at 4:00.  Even offering Early Bird specials will accomplish only so much.  People want to eat when they want to eat.  You can try to nudge that on the margins, but at some level, you’re probably stuck with overcapacity in midafternoon and a shortage of tables in the early evening.  It’s the nature of the beast.

Colleges are the same way.  Classrooms are packed during the Fall and Spring semesters from about 9:00 to about 2:30.  There’s a midafternoon lull, followed by a pickup in the evening.  (Student job schedules are major drivers of that)  Meanwhile, weekends and summers remain comparatively sparse, despite repeated attempts to ramp them up.  

The exception proves the rule.  The one case in which “twilight” (that is, 4:00) classes were generally successful was at the peak of the 2009-10 spike.  At that point, everything else was full, and students were desperate enough to take classes when they could get them.  When enrollments started to recede, the 4:00 classes were the first to dry up.  They were almost nobody’s first choice.  As long as students have options, they will tend to cluster around the most common work hours.  

(If we want to make a national push to use summers in more academically productive ways, the first place to start is with year-round Pell.  It came and went in a flash several years ago.  Until it’s a fixture of the scene, we can’t expect people to make plans that rely on it.)

Second is room availability.  We have only so many biology labs.  Overbooking them to see who doesn’t show up would be a recipe for disaster.  

Third is faculty availability.  Faculty and classes are not infinitely fungible.  Asking the professor of Spanish to pick up a section of American Sign Language is not a good use of resources, even if both belong to the Languages department.  Relatedly, when you have a sequence of courses, sometimes the highest level will run small.  Combining it with an unrelated class would make no pedagogical sense; dropping it from the curriculum would leave high-achieving students hanging.  Our “Differential Equations” class runs smaller than a typical College Algebra section.  I’d love to see more students make it that far, but at this point, we either run it small or we don’t run it.  

At the upper end of the curriculum, cancelling small classes would prevent students from graduating.  Given that we’re increasingly accountable for graduation rates, that’s a non-starter.

Fourth is faculty loads.  If you have someone you’re paying anyway, and you close a ‘small’ section with nothing else for them to do, are you really being fiscally responsible?  Again, faculty are not infinitely fungible.  If you fail to account for that, you’ll find efficiencies that don’t actually exist.

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, enrollment is a moving target.  Patterns change unevenly, so in any given year you’ll get a fresh new crop of anomalies.  When enrollment continues until just before classes start, as is typical at community colleges, you’re left making predictions based on partial information.  And you have to make those predictions early enough for alternate plans to be realistic.  That’s never a perfect science -- every year, someone complains that his course would have filled if we had just given it more time, which is unprovable either way -- but it’s inherent in being “responsive.”  If we locked down enrollments months in advance, we would have time to squeeze out some efficiencies.  With numbers changing until the last minute, it’s harder.  You’ll never capture that if you only look at “snapshots.”

Over the past several years, we’ve repeatedly reduced the number of sections scheduled upfront in order to catch up with shifting enrollments, and to prevent too many mismatches of supply and demand.  I’d say we’ve done a damn good job of it.  Nothing in the IHE report about the proposed Gates metric offers any suggestions about how to do it better. Unless it comes with some sort of practical “how-to,” I’m not impressed.  4:00 dinners are not a new idea.  But diners have preferences of their own.