• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Predictions Without Patterns

Forecasting section-level enrollments in a pandemic.

July 30, 2020

With a little over a month to go before the start of the fall semester, it’s getting near the time to start looking at section-level enrollments to see which sections are unlikely to get big enough to run.

Before folks on my campus get nervous, a few qualifiers are in order.

First, by “start looking at,” I don’t mean “decide.” I mean “start looking at.” Decisions require consideration, which takes time. We start looking before we start deciding, so the decisions aren’t knee-jerk.

Second, although there’s a default enrollment level that we set as a goal, there’s nothing automatic about it. “Her class had the same number of students as mine, but you canceled mine! Why?” Because hers was the only night section, or was the only section of a course required for graduation, or we predicted a ninth-inning rally that never happened. Because yours was one of many small sections of a course, or an elective, or on a day of the week that was especially unlikely to fill. The decisions involve balancing multiple factors, including a healthy dose of uncertainty.

This year, though, the uncertainty is much greater.

In any other year, we have historical patterns to help us decide. Based on those, we know that sections around lunchtime on Mondays are likelier to fill than sections on Friday afternoons. We know which classes tend to have bottlenecks and which sections are typically borderline. In some cases, if you show me the list of sections and enrollments at the end of July but block out the instructors’ names, I can pick out the ones taught by a particular instructor, because they always fill first. We know which courses are required by which majors and can sometimes project fluctuations a year from now based on curricular changes starting this year. (True example: a few years ago, the business transfer major changed its history requirement from U.S. history to world history. The following year, the balance of enrollments in the history department shifted accordingly.) And we’re pretty good at projecting overall yearly enrollment changes. If the college is projected to be down roughly 4 percent, as it was last year, then we expect to see that play out at the section level. The gen eds should broadly follow college enrollment, even as programs can deviate broadly.

But we don’t have any experience projecting enrollments in a pandemic, with a massive shift in teaching modalities and four-year partners changing their rules almost daily. Suddenly, guesswork is a much larger part of our projections.

For instance, we don’t know how many students who had originally planned to head off to four-year schools will instead do a visiting year, or two, with us. We’re offering classes in both asynchronous and synchronous formats online; this is the first time we’ve offered the latter as an option. What’s the optimal mix for matching student preferences? Without history, it’s anybody’s guess. (We can’t even survey incoming students, because we don’t know who many of them are yet.) Will the allocation of students among programs change when teaching modalities shift so dramatically? How many students will simply walk away? We don’t know yet; we can’t know yet.

My guess, which I’m foolish enough to write down in public, is that we’ll get an August enrollment surge as students who were planning to go away get word that there’s no “away” this year. Some of them will turn to us as a way to keep momentum toward graduation at a much more reasonable cost. Will those students cluster in certain majors? Will they include a large contingent of sophomores, blowing the roof off our 200-level classes? Will they be sent home from “away” in October and pile into our second seven-week session? Those all seem plausible, but the gap between "plausible" and "certain" matters.

My preferred outcome, of course, is a strong surge early enough that the question changes from "what do we cut?" to “what can we add?” That’s a much better question. And it may happen.

In the meantime, we’re busy making history. We’ll learn from it later.


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