Instructional costs account for nearly half of institutional expenses and are a critical component of the course planning process. Yet many colleges and universities have incomplete, inaccurate data that prevent departments from evaluating return on investment and effective resource allocation.
Academic Performance Solutions' (APS) discipline-level benchmarks of instructional costs help campuses confront this challenge by providing both diagnostic and actionable data to complement institutional mission and priorities.
APS analyses of departmental costs support the common assertion that faculty are among a college or universities’ largest investments. But how can academic leaders reduce these costs as a share of student credit hour (SCH) production? The obvious first option—changing instructor salaries—is provocative and sure to result in heated debates. My family is full of professors and I can envision our next dinner conversation being intense (to say the least).
The second option, while easier said than done, is still a more manageable approach: Re-allocating instructional resources to reach optimal capacity. Leaders can tackle this in one of a few ways:
- Improve course completion rates
- Ensure right-size section offerings
- Balance faculty course loads
In each case, the objective and the approach are straightforward. Use peer benchmarks to set quantifiable goals and use those goals as a means of increasing SCH production, while maintaining the same level of resources.
Limiting unproductive credits, reducing the number of under-filled sections, and maximizing instructional loads can help close the gap between actual and optimal SCH production—a gap which currently averages 25% of current production levels. (Per academic year, that’s a potential increase of approximately 130,000 SCH at small institutions and more than 500,000 SCH at large institutions.) We can agree it’s worth looking under the hood here, right?
1. Improve course completion rates
Over a third of unproductive credits occur in just 1% of all courses, many of which are the gateway courses that most students must take. Unproductive credits lead to course repeats, which extend a student’s time to graduation and kick off a vicious cycle of bottlenecks in the same gateway and required courses.
By targeting the 5% of courses in which 85% of repeats occur, colleges and universities can reduce the number of course attempts, resulting in additional classroom capacity and faculty resources—the latter of which could be reallocated to support student progress or to reduce bottleneck courses.
APS analysis also found that the average range in section completion rates, among courses with five or more sections, is 24 percentage points. Lack of coordination and standardization across course sections leads to widely varied experiences and results for students—likely one cause of varied outcomes. Courses with a range in section completion rates exceeding this average should be investigated for potential improvement opportunities.
2. Ensure right-size section offerings
Our analysis revealed 42% of course sections were found to have fill rates of less than 75%, indicating that faculty time and classroom space invested in these courses are not being fully utilized. By consolidating low-fill multi-section courses, colleges and universities can reallocate faculty and classroom resources.
Similar opportunities exist to evaluate resources used for single-section courses. Courses with only one section comprise one-third of all course offerings; however, they are often not evaluated for necessity from term to term. Furthermore, one-third of those single-section courses have a fill rate below 50%, with many offered in both the fall and spring terms. If these low-fill single-section courses were to be offered annually, rather than each term, institutions could reallocate an average of $550,000 in instructional salaries.
3. Balance faculty course loads
To determine a standard course load, departments need to consider all potential variables of faculty workload, including departmental goals, mission, and student demand. Academic leaders should also consider that faculty spend a considerable amount of time outside the classroom advising students, completing administrative tasks, conducting scholarly activities, and so on. All things considered, APS analysis found that the majority of tenured and tenure-track faculty teach just three or fewer sections per academic year.
Optimizing instructor workloads in high-cost departments can occur one of two ways:
- Increase median course loads for tenured and tenure-track faculty, aiming to reach the 75th percentile of your department’s benchmark. For example, a history department at a high-research comprehensive institution exceeds their cost benchmark by $73 per attempted SCH. Their tenured and tenure-track faculty teach a median of two sections per semester, while their peers teach three. If they were to at least match the median teaching loads, increasing median loads by just one section, they would see a $23 reduction in instructional costs per attempted SCH.
- Increase large, multi-section courses by a few students each (where possible). An introductory biology lecture at a regional comprehensive institution, for example, could decrease the number of sections offered by three if the class size of each section was increased by just five students.
As these opportunities show, there typically are areas where we can manage costs on campus; we just need to know where to start.