Can consolidating course sections benefit a university?

Research suggests so, but faculty can be wary

In an interview with the EAB Daily Briefing, David Attis offers commentary on this article and explains how to think about course optimization.

New research suggests that higher education institutions can find efficiencies by—carefully—reducing the number of class sections while maintaining the number of students enrolled in the courses, Ry Rivard reports for Inside Higher Ed.  

EAB and the University of New Mexico (UNM) conducted separate examinations of school data and came to similar conclusions.

EAB, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, examined data from seven colleges, most regional public universities. EAB researchers determined the average cost to teach a credit hour in each department and college. However, many faculty members are cautious about such calculations.

Matching sections to student demand

Researchers also found many classes are relatively empty compared with their maximum size. Combining such class sections for the same course would allow professors to serve the same numbers of students without upping the class cap. 

In one example, around 40% of sections did not achieve 70% capacity. In another, collapsing 289 sections to ensure an 80% capacity rate would save a school $300,000 in adjunct teaching expenses and up to $1.5 million in full-time faculty hours.  

This approach increases efficiency without reducing course options, says Richard Staisloff, founder of rpkGROUP, a consulting firm that advised the Gates Foundation on the project.

The savings could then be used toward adjunct benefits, or to teach smaller courses that cannot be consolidated, he says.

Adjunct hiring and compensation

In UNM's study, researchers identified 500 courses out of 10,000 sections that had more empty seats than the average attendance figure. Their findings led Kevin Stevenson, director of strategic projects at UNM, to suggest consolidating some under-filled classes. For example, rather than have four math sections with a maximum size of 25—but just 15 enrolled students per section—perhaps it would be better to have three sections.  

One critic told Inside Higher Ed that studying course optimization would only lead to new challenges for universities, like larger class sizes. “My view on all of this is that it is an exercise not worth undertaking,” said Howard Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University.

UNM's Stevenson acknowledged that sections may be under-filled because they are less convenient for students, and called administrators dictating curriculum a "recipe for disaster." However, he maintained that if an appropriate class cap size is 26, "I'd like you to have 26 students in the class, instead of 15."

The goal, he says, is to make education sustainable: "I think people are coming back to the idea that traditional forms of higher ed are going to be able to adopt new models and new ways of thinking," rather than adopting completely new educational models like online colleges, "because that's where more of the students are" (Rivard, Inside Higher Ed, 10/13).

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