Monday, June 26, 2017

Pros and Cons of Pro-Rating

A biology professor at Youngstown State University turned down an overload class paid on a pro-rated basis, and for some reason, it made national news.  I’m sure I’m not the only community college administrator scratching his head at that one.

Pro-rating may or may not be a good idea, but it’s common practice, and there’s nothing unusual in a professor declining to teach a section on that basis.  I’m of divided mind on it, precisely because there are arguments on all sides.

Most colleges, at least at this level, have minimum numbers of students that a section is supposed to have in order to run.  That’s mostly for economic reasons.  Now that tuition is the majority of most community colleges’ revenue -- a historically new development -- paying full freight for lots of small sections would be a budget-buster.  One way to handle that is to have a relatively strict go/no-go cutoff number, with the usual exceptions for classes with different facility requirements.  (For example, clinical sections in Nursing always run below our standard cap.)  

The pro-rating to which I’m referring happens when a section of a class has lower enrollment than would normally be required to run.  Rather than cancelling the class outright, some colleges will offer the professor a “per-student” rate.  The idea is that if the cutoff is, say, fifteen, the fact that only ten signed up doesn’t necessarily mean the ten don’t need it.  (This typically only applies to sections taught on an adjunct or overload basis; I’ve never seen in-load prorating, though I suppose it’s conceptually possible.)

Pro-rating has its advantages.  Most basically, it makes it easier for the college to afford to run small sections.  That means fewer cancellations.  Fewer cancellations are a very good thing for students, since every last-minute course cancellation -- and they’re frequently at or near the last minute, since it takes that long to suss out the final numbers -- throws student schedules into chaos.  

Reducing the cost of small sections also makes it easier for professors’ pet courses to run.  At the community college level, faculty typically teach the same few courses over and over again.  Over time, that can get discouraging.  Pet classes often fall well short of the enrollment floor.  If not for prorating, they generally wouldn’t run at all.  Allowing a per-student rate means allowing the occasional passion project to see the light of day, even if only eight students sign up for it.

All of that said, though, the amount of prep time and class time for a section of ten is no lower than for a section of fifteen.  The grading is lighter, which can make a difference in classes with heavy writing assignments, but everything else is pretty much the same.  And even with grading, it’s tough to argue that the difference between twelve and fifteen is dispositive, but the difference between twenty and twenty-five is luck of the draw.  It’s equally difficult to argue with a straight face that an adjunct with a small section should get pro-rated while a full-timer with a small section gets full credit.  The work is the same.  

Given that community college students often register late, and that the add/drop period is relatively active, colleges that pro-rate have to answer the question of “as of when?”  Is the number for which someone gets paid the number on the first day of the semester, the first day of class, or the day (usually the tenth day) that the college reports its attendance numbers externally?  If it’s the first day of class, then people are getting paid for students who walk away after the first day and never come back.  If it’s the tenth day, then someone who thinks he’s getting paid for ten may find himself only getting paid for seven, at which point it’s too late to walk away without hurting students.  In a perfect world, numbers would be set weeks in advance, but that’s just not how students behave.    

From a management perspective, the most frustrating scenario is the professor who refuses a section at the last minute.  That’s a real danger of prorating.  But if we don’t prorate -- if every section gets full pay no matter what -- then we have to cut down the schedule pretty severely.  Is it better to offer to run a small section on a per-student basis, or to close it down entirely?

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Given late and fluctuating enrollment -- endemic to the sector -- and the lack of enough money to just make everybody happy, is there a more elegant way?  If not, which way would you recommend?