Fixing Capacity With Better Class Scheduling

Colleges are re-examining their student enrollment data to better understand how courses are scheduled in an effort to fix capacity problems.

October 28, 2016
 
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Some colleges struggling to figure out how to manage overcrowded or empty courses could be looking for solutions in the wrong place.

A new report from Ad Astra Information Systems shows that the capacity issues some colleges are facing can be traced to the way they schedule classes. The company’s Higher Education Scheduling Index is a database that tracks how colleges allocate their faculty and classrooms to meet students’ course needs.

The report found that 36 percent of entry-level courses at four-year public institutions were “overloaded” with enrollments of 95 percent or more, which created “bottlenecks” that hindered students from graduating on time. The report also found that during peak hours, classroom utilization ranged from 63 percent at community colleges to 70 percent at public universities.

The annual report used data from 82 four-year public universities, 23 four-year private institutions and 52 community colleges. (Ad Astra isn’t the only company or consulting group that is assisting colleges with their capacity or scheduling issues. Others, such as Huron, offer similar services.)

For some of these colleges, the problem boils down to the way they currently schedule courses -- by rolling the master course schedule from one year to the next.

“Academics make edits to the schedule based on what they know and maybe they have information about what their students’ needs are,” said Sarah Collins, chief client experience officer for Ad Astra. “But they build based on available faculty and available space and it’s posted for students to register. The challenge is enrollments are dynamic.”

Enrollment changes, changes in student demographics and the demands of curriculum pathways all require adjustments to the schedule, so the roll-forward method creates inefficiencies and misalignment with student and curriculum demand, Collins said.

Addressing capacity concerns can be an expensive endeavor for most colleges. In 2015, institutions spent more than $11.6 billion on construction, with $8.7 billion going to the construction of new buildings, according to the report.

Sometimes erecting more buildings or classrooms can seem like the solution because the process of scheduling courses is decentralized.

“It becomes hard to see outside of the scope of an academic department you’re scheduling for,” she said.

But space isn’t the issue. At two-year institutions, classrooms were only used for 39 percent of what they considered the standard week. Four-year public universities used classrooms less than half of the time during a standard week, but they were more likely to have underutilized courses (36 percent) or overloaded classes (33 percent) than those courses that effectively balanced seat supply with student demand.

The real shakeup causing colleges to re-examine how they’re scheduling courses and handling capacity is coming from the dual-credit student population, particularly in community colleges, said Tom Shaver, Ad Astra’s chief executive officer and founder.

“Dual credit is a really big curveball for handling incoming freshmen,” said Collins. “A freshman isn’t necessarily a freshman anymore, so having statistics understanding this incoming population is critical.”

It’s one of the driving reasons why the Ohio Association of Community Colleges is using a state grant to examine the scheduling and capacity data at the state’s 20-plus community colleges and four open-access universities.

Ohio Governor John Kasich pushed the state to create more dual-credit opportunities last year, which increased the number of high school students in dual-credit programs from 15,000 to 52,000 enrolled this year, said Jack Hershey, president of OACC.

“It’s that kind of large spike in enrollment that makes a product like this valuable,” Hershey said. “We have to figure out how we can best use our space in one year, and we can’t build a bunch of new classroom spaces.”

There’s an additional driving factor for Ohio, as well -- the state uses performance-based funding for its institutions.

“Performance funding has caused us to change our thinking in almost everything. It’s a culture change,” Hershey said. “One limitation of current practice is that right now scheduling is done by faculty and academic chairs … they might know the data within their department, but it’s not shared across the college, yet we’re sharing classrooms and spaces. Each department may be in their own little world, but we have to make it a collegewide discussion so everyone can see where the opportunities are.”

Stark State College, located north of Canton, Ohio, was the first institution in the state to make scheduling and capacity adjustments using Ad Astra’s system.

“Stark State saw their student population almost double in five years, and that’s a welcome crisis most leaders would want to have,” Hershey said. “But it forced them to rethink their scheduling process and what they were doing.”

After one year, Stark saved $2 million in instructional costs and increased their tuition yield by $1.3 million because they were offering more courses at the times students wanted and so students increased the amount of credits they took, he said.

Stark State’s general education courses, for instance, tended to be overloaded with students, while upper-level technical courses like accounting or information technology were underutilized, said Peter Trumpower, Stark’s director of research and planning.

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