For the past five years, most of the conversations about community college enrollment decline focused on its macro effects, including consolidations and closures. Until recently, one critical topic received less attention: scheduling.
Fewer students mean fewer sections or smaller classes, but reductions are not often feasible for community colleges or their students. From a business standpoint, a college cannot break even with low section fill rates. Yet emptier classrooms are becoming more common—a 2016 Ad Astra Survey estimated 40% of courses sector-wide fall below a 70% fill rate.
The obvious solution is to simply cancel courses and offer fewer sections, but faculty resist sunsetting courses. They lose some flexibility in course content and potentially even lose teaching positions. Meanwhile, students lament the disappearance of convenient course times and have fewer last-minute registration options.
Students frustrated by scheduling variability and changes
Consequently, administrators face a seemingly near impossible task. They must try to balance the scheduling needs of students and faculty amid aggregate declines in enrollment. Despite weeks of planning, last minute schedule changes can create frustration, and more importantly, persistence barriers for students.
EAB researchers conducted focus groups with dozens of community college students and were surprised to find scheduling as one of their largest navigational challenges. In some cases, students would see an essential course canceled at the last minute because of low fill rate, only to learn it would not be offered for at least another semester.
Tackling uncertainty with predictable schedules
Administrators at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) faced a similar problem. In fact, internal surveys found that course scheduling was the top concern for students, faculty, and administrators at Tri-C. In response, administrators and faculty embarked on an ambitious task to provide a guaranteed schedule to students. The process breaks down into three basic steps.
The bullets boxed in gray represent some of the most innovative steps to their approach. After they built the initial course schedule, they tested its efficacy through the eyes of their most common student personas. For example, they asked themselves whether one of their evening, working adult students could feasibly build a schedule with the classes provided.
Tri-C’s academic leaders decided to set their minimum enrollment threshold at 80%. Any courses that meet this rate receive a special guarantee seal in the catalog. The seal tells students that this course section will not be canceled or moved. Students can then schedule their lives around classes.
Pillar of stability for at-risk students
In the first year, Tri-C managed to guarantee 60% of their courses and found a 4.1% drop in canceled classes. J. Michael Thompson, President of Tri-C’s East Campus and head of the project, expressed some of the qualitative impacts—
“We’re hearing from advisors that students are feeling more certain about their non-academic schedules. Their key variable is life uncertainty, and a guaranteed schedule is a great way to reduce that for our students.”
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