Higher education is in survival mode. Leaders across the country are taking stock of this past year and starting to map out a still uncertain 2021. But amid all the question marks, one thing is certain: student success is just as important as ever.
No single element of a college or university’s operation is more vital to students’ success than getting them the courses they need to graduate on time. Yet course scheduling is one of the most overlooked elements in the research and debates about student success in college.
This moment presents a distinct -- if incredibly challenging -- opportunity to rethink business as usual, as institutions simply don’t have the option of just replicating schedules of the past. The American College Health Association, for example, continues to recommend physical distancing to “decrease density and increase distance” in physical spaces. Yet with the same limited space, staffing and funding as in past years, it’s simply impossible to meet those recommendations without a new approach.
In recent years, more and more colleges and universities have worked hard to fundamentally rethink their structures to improve student success, moving beyond their deeply rooted habit of creating ever more programs to address the challenges. As institutions are thrust into a whole new reality, they must resist a creep back to “programmitis,” the term Daryl Smith, a leading education researcher, coined to describe higher education’s tendency toward one-off solutions.
Such solutions, Smith argued, aren’t really solutions so much as Band-Aids. Programs typically reach too few students, aren’t extensive enough in their interventions or aren’t sustained. She called instead for institutional transformation to drive student success.
Immediate measures, like programs for distributing emergency aid or providing additional counseling support remotely, are of course necessary during the pandemic. But rebuilding after the COVID-19 crisis will require fundamental change, not just stopgaps. Our higher education institutions will be forever changed, and those of us who work in or with them must be thoughtful about what that change looks like. Rather than being reactionary, we must use this time -- painful as it is -- to focus far more intentionally on student needs.
Doing so will require careful thought, leadership and management. Even in times of urgency, or perhaps especially so, we must be evidence-based and both deliberative and decisive.
Indeed, many of the hard-earned lessons gleaned by previous efforts at culture change still apply. We have firsthand experience of how wicked the problem of course scheduling can be on college campuses, juggling a multitude of shifting variables and interdependencies like pre- and corequisites, days and times of the week, room size, and mode of instruction. That makes it difficult to predict a single semester, much less the courses students might need to take years down the road.
Our experiences from our time at the State University of New York at Fredonia with rethinking the course schedule -- the backbone of the learning endeavor -- can provide useful insights to the kind of change process that colleges and universities need pursue going forward. Here are the key lessons we’ve learned.
First, the students must come first. As faculty members, we were happy to receive requests from our chairs every semester asking what courses we wanted to teach and when we wanted to teach them. But as deans and provosts, we realized that was not the most efficient or effective way to build a schedule. It wasn’t a particularly good use of resources, and it produced schedules that too often made poor use of students’ time or kept them from progressing as quickly as they could.
We did this largely because of habit, but when we stopped to consider whether it was really serving students, we knew we could find a better way. In our experience, most faculty members were more than willing to change to scheduling that prioritized students’ access to high-demand, required courses. And they were willing because they saw it was better for students to do so.
In gathering the department chairs to understand their goals and course scheduling pain points, we found that many of them tried to align their offerings with student needs. But they either did not have the data to do so or thought the administration would not support them if they upset a tenured faculty member by changing the normal time or location of their course. We knew that access to reliable data was a problem, but we also learned that we needed to better support a student-ready culture. To address the chairs’ concerns, we used data analytics to build the course schedule based on student demand. The data showed us exactly how many seats we needed to help enrolled students progress toward their degree.
Using data to build the schedule also happened to be a much better use of financial resources -- and that brings us to our second and third lessons: never lead with cost-cutting and communicate a sense of urgency. Even in the most challenging times, when budgets are on everybody’s mind, saving money doesn’t motivate people. Doing better by our students does, even when that means doing it with less. That can be tricky when the college or university is also facing extreme financial challenges, but the message -- both internally and externally -- must show how such work helps the institution invest its limited instructional resources wisely.
While communicating a sense of urgency is baked into this moment, it’s not enough to run around pointing out that a huge problem exists. In times of crisis, faculty members and other stakeholders may understandably fear that the exigent circumstances will be used to justify all manner of unrelated changes. Leaders can communicate the challenge and reassure stakeholders that there are attainable solutions.
This relates directly to our fourth lesson: leaders must not only identify the key problems but also have thought through some possible solutions. It is crucial to bring the faculty members and administrators who are close to the work into conversations early in order to fuel innovative ideas and build consensus. But institutional leaders must come to those discussions with some ideas in mind, as well. That will create a sense of movement and hope that people want to be a part of.
For example, after we gathered the course scheduling pain points from the department chairs, we created a smaller task force that investigated possible solutions and returned with suggestions. Having a nimble group of more senior chairs and deans involved in that problem-solving process was pivotal in determining a successful path forward. We pushed each other to be forward thinking yet practical.
Fifth, be honest about when you need to bring in outside expertise or a facilitator. Often, institutional leaders know what to do, but they lack the technical capability or experience to fully understand how to implement the change they envision. Especially in turbulent times, a trusted partner is invaluable.
The smaller task force spent one year trying to do the work on their own without making much progress. We could see the frustration because of the lack of progress, but sometimes, traditional cultural inertia is difficult to overcome without an objective, external review. We found that working with a facilitator helped us collect and analyze the data with the objectivity of an expert’s outside perspective.
The work paid off. The actions we took, in just two semesters, netted an overall savings in instructional costs of more than $250,000. After reducing course bottlenecks in critical areas, students were able to get the courses they needed to graduate on time, and the number of credits the average student took increased.
All these things are, of course, easier said than done. But remaining committed to them, especially in the middle of a crisis, is half the battle. As higher education moves from triage to broader change, we need to wrestle with our institutional cultures and determine what works and what no longer does in our changed world. But in the meantime, we can’t forget the lessons about change that we’ve already fought hard to learn.