Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Cancellation Shuffle

Course cancellations are sort of like snow days: no matter what you decide, someone thinks you’re wrong.  And chances are, sometimes you will be.

We’re getting to that point in the summer when we start looking closely at section enrollments for Fall, and making go/no-go decisions on the small ones.  It’s a frustrating process, made all the more frustrating by the inevitable uncertainty.

For economic reasons, we need a decent number of students per section in order to make ends meet.  Some sections will have to run small for one or more of a panoply of good reasons: it’s the only section of a required class; it’s the only evening section; it’s the only section at that location; every other section is full; it’s the last course in a sequence and the students need it to graduate; it’s a clinical site.  Eating the cost of the necessarily small ones requires setting the default minimum slightly higher than a strict average, to compensate.  

In the community college sector, though, it’s not that easy.  (Folks in private industry can replace that with “the community college space,” if it helps.)  Students register in two big waves, with a lull in between.  The early wave happens when registration opens in the Spring.  The late wave happens in August, sometimes continuing into September.  Early to mid summer is much slower.

Optimizing the numbers, then, would mean waiting until the first day of classes.  

But that doesn’t work for the students whose sections got cancelled out from under them.  Even if there are seats available in other sections of the same course, they may not be able to adjust their schedules.  Late changes wreak havoc on financial aid, too, especially if they involve crossing the 12 credit threshold.  From a student perspective, it’s much easier to make changes with a month’s notice or more than abruptly at the start of the semester.

But our information a month or more in advance is pretty spotty.  And for faculty who are hoping that their sections will run, an early cancellation comes as a slap in the face.  The inevitable pushback comes in the form of angry declarations that “it would have made it if you had given it a chance.”  That’s probably true some of the time; it’s unprovable either way.  

If students registered earlier and stuck with their choices, we could optimize easily.  If we had peak enrollments, everything would run just because students would take whatever they could get.  (That happened around 2009-10.)  If we had infinite resources, we wouldn’t have to sweat small sections; if anything, we could see them as educational treats.  If enrollments were steady from year to year, we could settle into patterns.  But that’s not this world.

Data analytics hold some promise for helping with predictions, but not necessarily at the level of the individual section.  Knowing that overall enrollment is, say, four percent lower than the previous year doesn’t necessarily tell you whether the Tuesday afternoon section will run.  And we don’t have data fine-grained enough to predict that, at least at this point.  If someone has seen software that helps at the level of the section, I’d love to see it.

Wise and worldly readers, in the absence of either omniscience or a visit from the money fairy, is there a better alternative to the cancellation shuffle?