Attis: How we're thinking about section optimization

A Q&A with EAB expert David Attis

A much-discussed Inside Higher Ed article on Monday touched on EAB's work with the Gates Foundation to study the cost of teaching students.

David Attis, EAB's senior director of academic research, sat down with the EAB Daily Briefing's Dan Diamond to offer context on the study's findings.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about this study? Why start with section optimization, for instance?

David Attis: We started with section optimization because we were looking for some quick wins that require relatively little disruption on campus. 

[Given] that many institutions are considering program closures, workload increases, or even faculty layoffs, we wanted to see if there were better ways to find efficiencies. And section optimization can lead to greater efficiencies while protecting the academic mission because it doesn't reduce the number of programs or courses, nor does it increase class sizes over the faculty-determined maximum.

Q: So what was your ultimate goal? Finding short-term efficiencies? Or protecting the long-term academic mission?

Attis: To be honest, a mix of both. 

As one provost told me, universities are inefficient in many ways. Some of those are intentional inefficiencies—we offer small classes and low-demand programs because it is part of our mission. 

But some are unintentional inefficiencies—we offer more sections of a course than we need to, or we have too many special tracks within a major. Our goal was to give academic leaders the tools to identify and quantify the inefficiencies so that they could decide which are unintentional and which are part of the core mission.

Q: Talking about collapsing sections, though, can provoke cautious reactions from faculty and university leaders...

Attis: Yes, and that caution is understandable.

Here's how I'd encourage readers to think about it: While the report is framed in terms of efficiency and productivity, it’s important to realize that those are not ends in themselves. 

For the colleges and universities that we work with, improved efficiency means that more resources can be allocated to institutional priorities. 

And that's especially important given that many institutions are facing decreasing resources. At these schools, the only way to fund faculty compensation increases or new academic programs is by finding ways to reallocate resources from existing activities.

Also from David: How to use data to find, eliminate bottlenecks

Q: Many EAB Daily Briefing readers are provosts and university leaders, but let's say you were talking directly to faculty. What are the key takeaways from this study?

Attis: Faculty are reasonably suspicious about proposals to improve academic efficiency. There have been many examples of externally imposed efficiency measures that had a negative impact on the learning experience. And faculty rarely see the benefits. 

We’ve tried to highlight approaches where this kind of data is used by academics to support improved academic decision-making. It helps them to be aware of the financial constraints and tradeoffs so that they can make better decisions.

It would be overly simplistic to collapse all sections that are less than 100% full. First of all, we heard from experts that it is unreasonable to shoot for greater than 80% section fill rates. But more importantly, we didn’t find anyone who even came close to achieving the full “theoretical” efficiency. What we saw instead were institutions that targeted specific problem areas—sections scheduled to be taught at a time when limited classroom space is available, for example—and collapsed a limited number of sections to solve their space problem.

Q: For readers who have only seen the Inside Higher Ed story (or our summary), and not read EAB's complete study findings, what context might you want to add?

Attis: The graphic in the [IHE] article emphasized the dollars in savings possible through consolidating sections, but that’s not where we think the most important opportunity is. 

Yes, some institutions have used this approach to reduce the number of adjuncts, and they did realize a few hundred thousand dollars in savings. (Though many said that increasing the percentage of students in sections taught by tenure stream faculty was a more important goal.) 

Where we have seen this really help institutions is not reducing their overall spending, but in better allocating scarce resources. Collapsing underenrolled sections, for example, has allowed some universities to add sections to bottleneck courses, reducing waitlists and time to degree.

Read more best practices in section optimization


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