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A New and Better Way to Manage Academic Offerings

by Tom Shaver

Disruption on Top of Disruption 

While disruption in higher education is certainly not a new topic, COVID-19 has obviously intensifiedaccelerated, and even somewhat redirected this disruption. Ad Astra even made a resource page dedicated to the pandemic in response.

The academic core of our institutions, the course schedule, was massively interrupted by a complete and almost immediate move to online delivery this spring. Uncertainty about ways to contain the spread of the disease on campus while delivering quality instruction has many institutions looking into multiple schedule scenarios for the upcoming fall term. Long-term concerns about financial sustainability are also coming to the forefront at many institutions. 

New Process IRequired for the New Normal 

All of this creates a compelling case for our industry to reimagine the pervasive – but fundamentally flawed – way we organize the delivery of courses for our students. This isn’t another argument for blowing up our face-to-face paradigm and moving everything online. While technology makes that possible (as we proved this spring), most students and faculty don’t want an entirely virtual educational experience. 

This is an argument for more nuanced process that supports the industry’s mission of graduating students in affordable, high-quality, career-aligned degrees. The good news is that aligning academic resources to students needs through a reimagined scheduling process is also the right thing to do for financial sustainability. But, that’s not the process institutions have today…not even close. 

Anyone involved in rolling out a course schedule at a college or university will tell you that the process is really optimized for faculty/departmental autonomy. That autonomy is usually exercised to minimize change for the faculty by materially copying last year’s schedule to create this year’s schedule. For this reason, the schedule is more of a loose federation of activities  assigned through a ‘copy-and-light-refinement’ process – than a cohesive institutional framework optimized for on-time completions. 

The impact of disjointed course scheduling process is very low alignment between students’ course needs and what’s offered in a typical course schedule. Ad Astra has benchmarked scheduling performance for over 320 institutions in our Higher Education Scheduling Index (HESI), and the common theme is lack of alignment. In fact, only 32% of the courses offered during a major term on a typical campus are ‘balanced’ with student need (versus overloaded or underfilled). Another impact comes from a seemingly innocuous nuance of schedule building – the meeting pattern gridDepartmental autonomy often keeps campuses from following one grid, resulting in avoidable time conflicts for students trying to get a full, conflict-free schedule (a typical institution ‘wastes’ 15% of the primetime hours through off-grid scheduling). 

To be clear, following the traditional and pervasive process of academic scheduling is in no way an indication of malice toward  students. It’s almost always a problem of ‘not seeing the forest for the trees, because departments understand their courses – but not how many students need to take them each term or how their courses must fit in a full student schedule with other departments’ courses. 

Start With ‘Why’…Your Mission 

Before discussing a better waylet’s heed the advice of Simon Sinek and start with why we create a schedule of classes for students. Starting with ‘why’ is the only way that we ensure that the process (the ‘how’) of organizing the classes taught (the ‘what’) is aligned with the mission (the ‘why’). 

This approach is especially applicable in higher education, where most institutions ‘why’ focuses on transforming students’ lives. In these uncertain times, I believe that a slight modification to this why must include financial sustainability. It’s impossible to fully focus on your mission of graduating students if your institution is at risk of being shut down or consolidated.  

Helping colleges and universities graduate students while being good stewards of their resources has been my personal ‘why’ and Ad Astra’s ‘why for years. It’s the reason I started Ad Astra over 24 years ago, and it’s the reason I’m more passionate about our work today than ever. 

Create a Plan That Can Manage the Complexity of Your Students’ Needs 

So, how do we do this better? First, we need to be realistic about the complexity and impact of this process. I often remind people that the higher education scheduling problem is so complex that our graduate math programs use it as a classic optimization problem. Faculty availability and the array of courses that they’re authorized to teach (as well as their preferences) need to be blended with space constraints, and last, but hopefully not least, the students’ course needs and availability. 

While potentially stating the obvious, I feel compelled to point out that today, the question of student availability is more complex than ever. More students are working, traveling to campus and juggling multiple priorities outside of campus than ever before. Under-represented minorities are the most likely to have constrained availability and limited transportation options. Any initiative to close equity gaps in degree attainment must take this obvious fact into consideration. 

heightened understanding of student availability can’t result in ‘custom’ schedules for all  our students. While some in the industry are hinting at this approach, it would result in very small class sizes and further threaten financial sustainability. The better approach is to understand the number of cohorts (or amount of fragmentation of enrollment) you can support in each major and align those to the highest concentration of needs for the students pursuing those majors. Meta-majors are a complementary strategy that can help you balance the competing needs to meet student availability and maintain sustainable cohort sizes. Another possibility is harmonizing curriculum within the general education core and across program requirements in lower enrollment majors. Collectively, we call this type of planning ‘Completion Track Analysis, and it’s an essential part of a better process to transform lives and ensure sustainability. 

This better approach acknowledges that most students take courses from multiple departments. For that reason, the process needs to be integrated between departments in a much more collaborative and cohesive way than the current approach. The ‘playbook’ from the Completion Track Analysis planning processreferenced above, should form the foundation of this new collaborative and cohesive process.  

Execute Your Plan With Data 

While cliché, it’s also true that a better process starts with data. Every institution has a ‘degree map’ for each majorwhich some institutions call pathways.  Some degree maps are digitized and integrated into advising and student planning, while others are still only in the catalog or on a website. But they’re out there. We’ve found that well-structured data on these degree maps serve as a foundation to build efficient, student-aligned schedules. That’s why we patented the approach of leveraging degree maps to infer course demand years ago and why we’ve invested so heavily in degree map-based course demand analytics. Leveraging this data, along with historical schedules and student academic history data, is the starting point for a better process. 

Next, we need to understand students’ availability and completion goals. A simple survey can uncover critical data on preferences/restrictions regarding modality, campus location, time of week, and credit loads per term. We should also ask students when they plan to graduate and verify that their goal is feasible relative to their intended credit load. In the absence of a comprehensive survey, we can draw reasonably good inferences from historical schedules (realizing that those schedules’ constraints can shift registration behavior based on what’s offered versus needed/desired). 

Once students’ course demand and preference/availability are known, we can build a schedule that is optimized for them. This schedule must include the appropriate number of seats for each course offered in the right modality, location, and time to maximize access to required courses. This is a student-aligned schedule that promotes on-time completion. We measure the impact on student progress to completion each term using a KPI we call ‘Degree Velocity.’ We know we have the process right when we see better Degree Velocity, or productive credit hour accumulation toward a degree. The research has confirmed a powerful correlation between Degree Velocity and student outcomes (specifically, retention and completion rates). Improved Degree Velocity is also the best way for students to graduate with minimal debt (for example, assuming the fully loaded cost of attending a public university is $25,000 per year, a student would save $50,000 graduating in four years instead of six). We have many more resources on Degree Velocity here.

Finally, we need to allocate our faculty efficiently to this student-aligned scheduleWhen possible, we should honor faculty preferences within this new student-friendly process. To minimize disruption, we can even start with a ‘roll-forward schedule’ from last year and refine it to align with students’ needs. The key, however, is that we keep our focus on the ‘why’ of transforming students’ lives. In that context, it’s reasonable to ask a senior faculty member to teach an ‘Introduction to’ course, which has also been shown to improve retention. It’s also reasonable to move offerings to a different meeting time or location if needed to maximize students’ course accessIt may also be necessary to rethink release time for certain faculty who are needed to teach high-demand courses. 

If Not Now, Then When? 

In summary, a better process helps students graduate on time while caring for financial sustainability. It controls instructional costs while potentially improving ‘tuition yield’ from existing students who can now take more courses they need, conflict-free. 

While we can continue to rationalize the current ‘autonomy approach,’ can we really afford toCan we leverage these uncertain times to finally adopt a process of managing our academic offerings in a way that advances our industry’s mission? This may be the best opportunity in our generation to finally fix the ‘how’ so it can support, not threaten, our mission. 

~Tom Shaver, Founder and CEO at Ad Astra 

Course Scheduling COVID-19 Aligned Scheduling