Scheduling and Context | Confessions of a Community College Dean

If you haven’t seen Tim Burke’s recent article on putting together a college curriculum, it’s worth reading. At the risk of being accused of one-upsmanship, he plays the game on the “easy” setting. Swarthmore has a fairly consistent enrollment — selective admissions among a glut of applicants can do that — and it’s small. It has only one location and is mostly dedicated to face-to-face tuition.

If none of these apply, planning is all the more difficult.

In a community college context, planning begins with an estimate of both total enrollment and the distribution of that enrollment across formats (in-person, hybrid/remote, online). In a multi-campus facility, this includes projecting the distribution of enrollments across campuses. In the mid-2000s, for example, I could predict with some confidence that enrollments for each year would be about 2 percent higher than the year before. In the past five years, we have had to predict the magnitude of the declines. Managing growth is much easier; You add sections when you have the space and staff to add them. Dealing with decline is more difficult.

It’s more difficult partly because of the converse of Say’s law; Lack of supply can create lack of demand. Enrollment at one branch location is struggling and money is tight, so they’re closing some of the smaller departments there. That makes it harder for students to get busy schedules there, so they start giving up what’s left. What begins as fiscal responsibility can quickly spiral into a death spiral fueled by self-fulfilling prophecies. But just knowing that doesn’t provide the resources to run many small chunks. And knowing the difference between cranking the pump and throwing good money after bad money is as much an art as it is a science.

The pandemic complicated things by accelerating the transition to online/remote delivery. Now it’s not enough to know that you have to do twenty sections of Intro to Hypothetical Studies in the fall. You also need to predict how many should be in-person versus online or hybrid.

Admittedly, asynchronous online classes help avoid some of the cases Burke writes about where classes that need the same students clash. That’s helpful. However, staffing issues can arise when some faculty in a particular department are conspicuously less convenient and/or effective in one format than the other.

Different universities handle the allocation of courses differently. At the adult education centers where I worked, the student secretariat draws up a draft curriculum based on the enrollment forecasts from Institutional Research. Academic affairs leadership reviews it and makes changes based on strategic directions, known staffing issues, or costs. Then a course plan with empty names goes out to the departments. Each department enters the faculty names, although each has a slightly different system for doing so. Theoretically, they all use “rotating seniority,” but that’s interpreted in a variety of ways. In theory, full-timers go first, but small departments often have superstar extras they’re dying to keep, so they give those affiliates extra credit. I’ve long advocated an NFL draft-style course assignment, where a division goes down the seniority list for everyone’s first course, then repeats that for everyone’s second course, and so on. Some do; For others, the senior fills out their entire schedule first, followed by the next person. That can lead to some pretty annoying schedules for whoever leaves last.

As with section assignment, this process was much easier when enrollment was constant or increasing. When they fall off quickly, “bumping” comes into play. I can feel my eye twitch at the mere mention of poking.

If there is a minimum number of students most sections must enroll in order to run, you can expect some sections to be low as the semester progresses. At this point, management must decide when to roll the dice, if more students will show up, and when to pull the plug. Some of those who have been unplugged will invariably take offense and argue with great confidence that if we had only given it more time it would have worked. It’s an unresolvable dispute, so all you have to do is call to the best of your knowledge and accept that not all will be right.

The slush is a bit important, some classes have special demands on walking even if they are small. It is the only section of a course required for completion, or it is the only evening section, or every other section is already full.

One change I made at Brookdale that I’m proud of was moving the Go/No-Go decision date. When I got there, it was ten days after the semester started. I moved it to about ten days before the semester. That may still sound late, and in some ways it is, but community college enrollments tend to pile up at the last minute. At the very least, putting in a buffer avoided the deeply frustrating scenario of canceling a class after it first met. And the faculty had some certainty before the semester started that their classes would actually happen. I would have preferred to postpone it even earlier, but in an environment of declining enrollment, I took what I could get.

The frustrating thing about planning is that it’s never quite perfect. Cohorts do not behave like cohorts due to dropouts, breaks, credits, and major changes. Last year’s pattern never quite matches this year’s pattern. And there’s a necessary unknowability to some of these, give outright admissions and (gesturing wildly) the state of the world.

Yes, certain types of software might help. Some of it is algorithmic. But these models will only take you so far. It’s difficult to handle the many variables when the information is incomplete and emerging and you don’t have the economic buffer to make many mistakes. Bash administration if you want, but those decisions have to be made. Someone has to own them.