Staying on the college grid

Scheduling courses using existing faculty and facilities space

Managing course scheduling involves more than just cracking a complex logistical code each semester. It’s also a potential bane or boon to the operating budget.

Course scheduling is tied integrally to two of an institution’s most expensive resources—facilities and faculty. An schedule featuring too many under-enrolled classes can lead to wasted space and unnecessary spending on instructional costs. Those costs accumulate when an institution needs to hire adjunct faculty or when full-time faculty have teaching overloads—that is, take on classes over and above their contracted amount.

“Overloads are generally a bad thing and mean you need to manage your classes better,” says Brian Mitchell, founder and current director of the Edvance Foundation, which works to improve access to higher education and to help public and private colleges collaborate. “You shouldn’t have too many surprises. If you do, you need to ask yourself when they occurred, in what kind of classes and why, because it may be systemic,” adds Mitchell, who served as president of Bucknell University in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2010.

This type of systemic inefficiency is what administrators at Somerset Community College in Kentucky identified when they analyzed schedules. They found 196 course sections to eliminate from the schedule, based on duplications and low enrollment. Provost Tony Honeycutt estimates that $1.5 million in instructional costs is now saved per year, in part because the institution has become less dependent on hiring adjuncts.

Throughout the U.S., institutions are taking a closer look at course scheduling to more effectively utilize faculty and space resources. Here’s how officials are determining what courses faculty can cover, how to fill classroom seats and what courses to keep on the schedule—all while keeping the interests of students in mind.

Developing schedules, choosing instructors

Somerset administrators shifted their thinking when they analyzed course schedules: Why continue with the previous semester-by-semester approach if a bigger overhaul was needed? So they completed a more comprehensive, historical analysis, studying a five-year period of course patterns.

Eight keys to efficient and effective course scheduling

  1. When analyzing patterns in course scheduling, look back several years rather than just one semester.
  2. Hire adjuncts only after you know that full-time faculty have reached their full workload.
  3. Be aware of where faculty members’ time is going—not just teaching time but also advising, committee work and research time.
  4. Distribute courses more evenly across the full day’s schedule.
  5. Make the enforcement of standardized course times a priority.
  6. Consider using technology to help centralize and automate scheduling functions. 
  7. Manage the course schedule with degree requirements and other needs of students in mind.
  8. Look to funding academic area budgets based on course registration.

For this, the school turned to Ad Astra for its Strategic Checkup software. At first, Honeycutt says they were simply looking for a program to automate the scheduling process each semester. “But if your schedule isn’t in good shape, rolling that forward just means you’ll develop the schedule faster, but you’re not going where you want to be.”

Now, full-time faculty deliver 72 percent of all credit hours (up from 57 percent in 2010) while 14 percent of all classes are budgeted as full-time faculty overloads. In the past, part-time adjunct overloads forced the creation of short-term, full-time contingent positions. Many adjuncts had even carried more credit hours than full-time professors, says Honeycutt, which would now—according to a new Somerset policy—force benefits costs to kick in. (See “Optimizing Adjuncts,” p. 74.)

At The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, provost Harvey Kesselman says budgeting is not the primary concern in whether adjuncts or tenure-line faculty teach a course; adjuncts are hired based on a particular skill or expertise that they can offer to the curriculum. Allocating adjunct funds occurs at the divisional level, based on workload information extracted from Banner via the system’s Discoverer tool, which processes and reports scheduling and employee data.

Deans at the school have the discretion to count multiple low-enrolled, full-time faculty-taught classes together as one course toward an individual faculty member’s total load, which helps provide greater coverage without sacrificing small class size or resorting to additional spending.

Adjuncts should be hired only after ensuring standing faculty have reached their full workload, advises Karen Goldstein, a consultant for executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. But workloads can “get squishy” because they’re difficult to measure, she says.

To deal with this, some institutions have developed accounting systems to credit faculty with a certain amount of points for teaching, advising, directing independent studies, committee work, conducting research and other responsibilities.

“This creates a fair way to count each faculty member’s contribution to the system,” Goldstein says.

Filling the seats

The classes and times students are choosing also counts in the scheduling equation. One of the most effective ways to improve fill-rates and eliminate underutilized sections is to distribute courses more evenly across the schedule.

“Since the downturn, colleges have realized they weren’t paying enough attention to faculty course loads and teaching times,” says Goldstein. “Now, the deans and CFOs are saying, ‘No, you can’t just teach at 10 and 2 on Monday and Wednesday. We teach courses all day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.’ ”

At Western Kentucky University, scheduling applications coordinator Jessica Steenbergen says the school filled early-morning and late-afternoon sections by moving 300- and 400-level required courses to these times and scheduled most general ed and elective classes during the more popular 10 a.m.-to-2 p.m. block.

Another way to fill seats is cracking down on off-grid scheduling patterns. For Michael George, registrar at the University of Alabama, enforcing standardized class times is a top priority. The school enforces an 85 percent seat-fill rate, using data pulled from an Ad Astra scheduling tool, before a section can be placed in a room.

The next step, George says, is attending to the front end of the process: the university is implementing CourseLeaf Section Scheduler software to help enforce policies before classes are officially placed on the schedule, while departments are still building their class times.

While technology can help centralize and automate many scheduling functions, software is not the answer at Richard Stockton College because so many faculty teach across multiple disciplines, Kesselman says, “Scheduling really needs to occur initially in conversations at the program level,” he says.

A matter of retention

Optimizing a schedule is about more than just trimming costs—it’s also about helping students take the courses they need to graduate. Course availability was cited as the No. 1 challenge among respondents to a 2012 national student satisfaction survey conducted by consulting firm Noel-Levitz.

Honeycutt of Somerset notes that managing the schedule with students’ needs in mind is critical for retention, especially in a community college setting with many part-time students who have full-time jobs. “We have to be sure we’re not causing a student to have to miss a semester or not take a full load because of when these classes are offered,” he says.

In the past five years, Somerset has experienced 32 percent growth in enrollment, while course offerings have grown by less than 5 percent to 1,250 sections each semester. Honeycutt attributes this, in large part, to eliminating bottlenecks where too many classes were being taught during the same blocks of time. This helped raise the seat-fill rate from an average of 59 percent to 74 percent. Also, average credit hours per student has grown from 7.3 in 2008 to the current level of 10.8—while the teacher-student ratio remains at 20:1.

Maintaining low teacher-student ratios is crucial to retention, as well. That’s why Mitchell of Edvance warns that overemphasizing fill-rates can lead to overfilling classrooms. “Graduation rates rely on one-to-one interaction with students especially in upper-division classes.”

A cultural shift

Having a campuswide strategic plan can help bring unity of purpose across the various colleges, schools and departments, Mitchell says. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with incentivizing deans to make decisions in line with the institution’s strategic plan.”

Goldstein of Witt/Kieffer says many institutions have moved toward responsibility-centered budgeting, where revenue comes into each school “not based on how well the dean makes an argument but based on course registration.” This model also encourages deans to take a hard look at boosting course enrollments.

Ultimately, a good course schedule balances efficiency with effectiveness, providing as many students as possible with access to a school’s most essential resources—faculty—while sticking to a sustainable, smartly-managed budget.

Ioanna Opidee is a Milford, Conn.-based writer and adjunct professor.


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