COVID-19 has caused mass disruptions to higher education. The abrupt move to online this semester, the competing demands of a health and economic crisis, and an uncertain fall all threaten current students’ progress.
With incoming students, it’s unclear whether the crisis will scare them off or if enrollment will grow in the fall, as it typically does during a recession when millions of jobless Americans suddenly find themselves searching for new skills. And if new and returning students do show up in large numbers, there are pressing questions about whether they will be drawn to a different mix of programs than just a few months ago.
Taken together, all this creates a raft of challenges for institutional planners. Chief among them is how to ensure students are able to get the courses they need to continue to move toward graduation and ultimately employment. The processes that control course access -- schedule building and registration -- must be rethought in this environment.
Most institutions copy schedules from the previous year to minimize disruption. But that won’t work for two reasons. First, our research has shown that, even under the best circumstances, those schedules are not typically aligned to students’ needs. And second, such schedules are rarely efficient for institutions. The financial fallout of COVID-19 will force many colleges and universities to create leaner schedules with fewer course options, especially for requirements in low-enrollment majors.
Given that reality, institutions will need to rethink the dominant model for determining access to courses. The status quo -- giving scheduling priority based on credits, or senior standing -- won’t cut it in this environment.
That approach leaves students who have earned fewer credits but may have more constrained schedules with fewer options. It may also prevent them from accessing overenrolled, or bottlenecked, courses that they need to continue to stay on their degree pathway. Imagine, for example, a single mother who is 12 credits into a degree program and has suddenly found herself homeschooling her children, or a stocker at a local store who has had his hours cut and needs to move more quickly through his degree program and into a new job.
Instead of the usual approach, institutions should focus on providing access to courses based on need, not credits. A targeted preregistration period is a particularly promising approach and works by offering students with the greatest need the opportunity to register first -- guaranteeing they have access to essential courses at times that fit their schedules.
This can help reduce the impact of bottleneck courses -- those for which student demand outpaces available seats -- which can be a massive barrier to degree completion. Our research shows that nearly a quarter of all courses are overloaded, signaling they may be bottlenecked. And those percentages may grow as COVID-19’s disruption pushes students toward certain courses at the same time that budget cuts force colleges to cut sections.
Before COVID-19, a number of institutions were already leveraging student-friendly schedules and preregistration to reduce the negative impact of bottlenecks, particularly for the large numbers of working students, parents and those only able to attend part-time.
Take the case of Sacramento State, which is aggressively working to improve course capacity as part of California State University’s Graduation Initiative 2025. This past fall, the College of Arts and Letters piloted a new program to pre-enroll 325 incoming freshmen in block schedules based on a survey about their interests, learning styles and availability. The results were astounding: only 5 percent of students opted out of their predetermined schedule, and only 20 percent of students changed the time for a course -- meaning more students were starting on a clear path to graduation.
This strategy ensures that more students are taking the courses they need to satisfy requirements and graduate in four years. It also allows students to know exactly when their courses will be and design their work schedule well in advance, or have their work schedule inform their pre-enrollment schedule. Most important, it ensures that students get seats in common bottleneck courses in their first year, mitigating cascading delays in those courses -- delays that could expand with students likely to repeat courses this coming year.
Sacramento State’s pilot program was so successful that a variation of it will be used for the entire first-year class of 4,300 students in the 2020-21 academic year. But this kind of scheduling remains far from reality for most institutions.
A core challenge in moving to such solutions is that institutions simply don’t have enough information about students to know what courses they need and when they need them. As students register for courses, there is also no gatekeeper that can help identify whether a student must take that specific course to move forward or whether it is one of many options for that student to graduate. Instead, institutions should be gathering and using data to create more student-friendly schedules.
The process must be precise, specific and informed by student pathways. For example, a course that is necessary for some students but simply of interest to others should be offered during the preregistration period only to students who need it. Other interested students can then register for any remaining seats during the regular registration period.
With better data, institutions could redesign their operations to focus more on helping students whose lives have been disrupted or were already complicated prior to this crisis. They can do so, in part, by ensuring that early access to classes is given to students based on need, not arbitrary credit or year thresholds. The problem is, we must be willing to ask and to dig into the data.
For students who work or are raising children or otherwise have complex lives, being shut out of a required course can mean an additional semester or year in college. It can mean more debt. It can mean they never graduate.
Being able to schedule courses at certain times is far from a luxury for these students; it’s a necessity -- and now more than ever.