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Faculty members often fear administrative efforts to “optimize” academic operations. That’s because some such efforts result in the elimination or shrinkage of programs deemed to be unsuccessful by key metrics, but worthwhile in harder-to-measure ones: the program with low numbers of majors but that delivers a large share of general education credits, for example, or that rounds out the liberal arts curriculum.

Sometimes, though, optimization efforts can actually help academic departments. Case in point: Stephen F. Austin State University, which used the services of Ad Astra Information Systems to close holes in its scheduling system -- and then used newfound funds from expected higher course enrollments to approve 19 additional full-time, non-tenure-track faculty lines.

Ad Astra is not, of course, the only scheduling software company that serves higher education. Others include EMS and CollegeNET. What is significant is that Stephen F. Austin invested its anticipated savings from course schedule optimization in full-time faculty hires, all in a period of financial challenges.

Fifteen lines were eventually filled. More than 1,250 students were able to get the courses they needed in Fall 2017 as a result of scheduling optimization. 

The new faculty members generated some 5,600 student credit hours, a 3,000-hour increase within the general education control group from the previous fall. In so doing, they generated their annual salaries plus $213,000 in revenue that semester and about $1.3 million in revenue in the spring.

Mark Barringer, chair of history at Stephen F. Austin, said the move allowed him to hire two “amazing faculty members who our students love.” That’s in addition to hiring one current adjunct into a third full-time slot. It seems the optimization data gave his administration “the confidence to let me add faculty knowing that the bottom line would justify the additions,” he said.

‘I Couldn’t Get the Class I Needed’

John Calahan, coordinator for space utilization and scheduling at Stephen F. Austin, said that prior to fall 2017, “we heard the anecdotal stories -- and talking to many colleges you’ll get these stories -- ‘I couldn’t get the class I needed,’ or, ‘I’m going to have to hang around for another year or semester to get this course I need to graduate,’” particularly with regard to general education courses. So Calahan met with department chairs, deans and other administrators to see what the university could do to help professors assist students in moving through their academic plans faster.

Sometimes the answer was access to larger rooms to increase section size, or another relatively simple fix. But more often, the answer was “We need to get more faculty.” And because the small East Texas city of Nacogdoches isn’t teeming with qualified adjunct instructors, the faculty slots needed to be full-time, to lure candidates into moving there. That's on top of the student success-driven reasons for hiring full-time instructors, whose teaching has been shown to benefit from their relative job stability and institutional support, of course.

Unfortunately for Stephen F. Austin, such discussions coincided with a state funding cut of $2.7 million -- not the kind of fiscal environment that lends itself to faculty hiring. Decreased head count and student credit hour generation, due in part to course-access issues, also had a negative impact on formula funding.

Calahan and his colleagues eventually looked to Ad Astra, a Kansas data-based higher education consultancy, for help. They’d used some of Ad Astra's services for several years already. But this time they wanted to know how changes to their scheduling system might allow more students to pick up more credits more quickly, helping them graduate and -- crucially, at the same time -- increasing revenue for the institution.

Bringing Balance

John Barnshaw, associate vice president for research and statistics at Ad Astra, had recently moved there from his previous post managing faculty salary and other data at the American Association of University Professors. To help Stephen F. Austin, he used Ad Astra software called Platinum Analytics to help build an efficient course schedule that would provide more seats for the courses students wanted and needed, namely general education courses in the desirable, “prime-time” midday hours.

The overall idea was to bring balance to section enrollments. According to Ad Astra’s Higher Education Scheduling Index, "overloaded" or overfull courses are those with 95 percent enrollment or higher, and they make up about 23 percent of all courses at all institutions in the database. "Balanced" courses, meanwhile, are about 70 to 95 percent full, with a target goal of about 85 percent -- about 32 percent of all courses. And “underutilized” courses are less than 70 percent full, at 44 percent of all courses in the database.

Barnshaw saw that he could provide more seats in in-demand courses by moving Stephen F. Austin’s schedule onto a grid, eliminating overlapping course and nonstandard course schedules that sometimes keep students from being able to take as many courses as they need and want to.

“On a traditional schedule, when I taught, classes were mostly Monday-Wednesday-Friday, for 50 minutes, beginning on the hour,” Barnshaw said. “But if I have a course that’s at 10:30 in the morning, it’s off the grid by an hour.” Moving courses to a grid, therefore, reduces “waste,” Barnshaw said, and increases opportunities for revenue.

Course Schedules as Retention and Revenue Tools

“A course schedule is not just a planning tool, it can be a retention tool and it can be a revenue tool,” Barnshaw said.

In chemistry, for example, the projected fall enrollment was 688 for general education classes, more than the number of seats typically offered. Barnshaw's analysis indicated that the university could add three new sections to the on-grid schedule to meet demand, and 115 new students enrolled in the course. The new seats’ gross tuition revenue of about $111,000 paid for the cost of the new lecturer that semester ($32,250) and generated an additional $79,000 for the university.

In all, some 52 new sections were added across six disciplines. Administrators worked with faculty members to make sure that departmental guidelines about course caps were being followed, too. Most significantly, taking a big gamble that was approved by the university’s governing board, the university used the funds they anticipated they’d see from increased course enrollments to offer departments more faculty lines, some 19 in all.

Barnshaw said Ad Astra provides "solid data," but that the university “deserves a lot of credit for taking it on faith” that it would unlock enough new seats and generate enough funds to pay for the hires.

Hiring on Faith

By discipline, there were four full-time, non-tenure-track faculty approved lines in English, three in math, one in chemistry, four in history, four in communication studies, one in philosophy and two in political science. To the optimization skeptics: these are not the typical "job-ready" fields that benefit from other kinds of academic prioritization efforts. And yet the resultant searches ended up in the hiring of 15 full-time, non-tenure-track instructors.

“We probably could have hired more,” Calahan said. Yet Stephen F. Austin didn’t want to force faculty searches on departments with what Calahan called "healthy skepticism" about the numbers.

“There were questions, like, ‘Is this software going to tell us how to run our department?’” Calahan said. “And the answer is, ‘No. It’s providing data.’” One department was approved for four hires but only advertised for three, thinking that the data were inaccurate, for instance, Calahan said. But it ended up filling up 95 percent of its projected enrollment.

“This is an iterative process,” he said. “We’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time. This isn’t being forced on anyone. But this was really our first proof of concept, and it paid off.”

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