The academic schedule is a barrier to student progress and outcomes

Today’s busy students need schedules that predictably provide access to a clear path to completion. That requires them to have seats in required courses offered when, where and how they can take them.
Tom Shaver
Tom Shaver
Tom Shaver is the founder and CEO of Ad Astra, a higher education software provider that helps students progress to degree completion.

It has been 12 years since Stan Jones, the founder of Complete College America, told Congress that time was the enemy of college completion.

Jones said college students took longer to graduate—if they were even finishing—because they couldn’t juggle degree progress, work and other responsibilities. He noted that colleges and universities must no longer ignore this new reality to help meet the needs of a growing majority of their students.

I’ve been talking with institutional leaders about their course schedules for the past 30 years, and I often think of Jones’ words. Student-aligned academic schedules are a foundational degree progress strategy. Yet, too many college and university administrations consider scheduling: 1) a purely tactical process to complete to start registration, 2) a third rail that, if altered in any substantive way, has a greater potential to anger faculty than help students or 3) a way to meet faculty—not student—needs.

These perspectives ensure that most college and university schedules remain a barrier to progress and improved outcomes.

Consider the facts:

  • Nearly 60% of all college and university students have experienced instances when the courses they needed for their major or degree weren’t offered when they needed them. Those barriers can extend the time to degree and drive down retention and graduation rates.
  • Slow degree progress, caused by blocked completion paths, is a huge problem. Students who complete 11 or fewer credits a year have just a 7% chance of graduating. However, part-time students who take 18 credits a year are seven times more likely to graduate.
  • 45% of the courses offered at a typical institution are underfilled, meaning that enrollment is less than 70% of the available seats. That leads to wasted instructional capacity and financial sustainability issues.
  • Once they see the data, the vast majority of faculty support changes that improve academic schedules and align with students’ needs.

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My father was an architect whose firm specialized in educational design. He also introduced me to higher education and taught me about resource utilization and the importance of the academic schedule. My background inspired me to look at scheduling as a design problem. Just as we would never consider building a classroom building without blueprints to guide the subcontractors, we should never roll out a schedule for an academic year without a plan.

The existing process on most campuses is also incapable of ensuring the financial sustainability of low-enrollment academic programs. By focusing on scheduling courses based on faculty preferences instead of clear and sustainable completion paths for students, course offerings are inevitably rolled out at times, in locations and with modalities that students do not need. This failure to prioritize leads to low enrollment sections, course cancellations, constrained tuition revenue and retention issues as students are blocked on their path to graduation.

Today’s busy students need schedules that predictably provide access to a clear path to completion. That requires them to have seats in required courses offered when, where and how they can take them. Our current decentralized and fragmented approach cannot effectively manage the complexity of scheduling enough to create those clear completion paths that students require.

Over the years, Ad Astra has created patented plans for forecasting course demand. We recently developed an integrated planning framework that enables an intentional design to ensure efficient and student-aligned schedules. Colleges and universities need to dramatically raise the scheduling bar. Teaching students is the core of what higher education does. If students do not persist in their studies because colleges can’t schedule the courses they need, it compromises the mission of higher education.

Colleges and universities must create student-aligned schedules and focus on degree progress as a leading indicator of success. Institutional leaders must commit to solving this complex problem through conviction and intentional design. Higher education must make time an ally instead of an enemy.

Students need to believe in the value of higher education. Taxpayers need to see higher education as good stewards of their money. We need to get this right.


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