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No Such Thing as Cancelled

By Harvey Meyer
A college experiments with a guaranteed class schedule and finds more upside than expected.

When William Law Jr. first contemplated offering his community college students a guaranteed class schedule, one image kept flashing in his mind: A harried, working-class single mother of two who hires a babysitter and rearranges her life so she can take a much-coveted course. Only she discovers the class has been canceled because too few students signed up.

For this mom, whose cards seem already stacked against her, the class’s unavailability could be a devastating blow to her college dreams. But not if Law, president of Tallahassee Community College, has anything to say about it.

“When we cancel that Wednesday night class on that single mom, her life gets bad in a hurry,” says Law, a four-time Boston Marathoner who likens the endurance required for many college-going single mothers to finishing the 26.2-mile run. “When we can offer more certainty with a guaranteed class schedule, she is probably the biggest beneficiary.”

The picture of the striving single mother is now a motivating guide for all the Tallahassee administrators who plan the institution’s course offerings. Since 2004, the 14,000-student college has been offering a guaranteed class schedule, a key feature that sparked a major revamping of their budgeting and finances, student orientation and counseling, faculty staffing and other areas. It is apparently one of only a handful of colleges and universities nationally that ensures classes aren’t canceled.

Law would be delighted if more community colleges offered the policy, since he says it produces benefits not only for students but faculty members, administrators and the entire institution. He says the policy helps improve student service and uncover inefficiencies and enables the college to better endure fluctuating enrollments and state budget cuts.

For Tina Ratel, a 32-year-old single mother of three in Tallahassee, the guaranteed schedule is a welcome perk.

 “It’s one reason I’m able to go to school,” says Ratel.  “If I signed up for a class and found out it wasn’t available, it would throw things off for me.”

The Compact

For Law, the guaranteed schedule represents a compact with students.

“We want to send the signal to students that their planning is valuable,” says Law.  “We say we serve students, so our class schedule should reflect that…The whole idea is to offer them additional certainty so they can execute their life plans.”

At Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, the College for Working Adults program also offers guaranteed classes for a group of students who agree to take two courses weekly for two years. The program was first instituted last fall at most of the Ivy Tech’s 24 campuses to serve time-crunched students intent on completing an associate degree in two years, says Kim Stephan, the statewide coordinator of the working adult program.

“We know time is critical for working adults,” says Stephan. “They are busy with family, with work and don’t have time to mess around with trying to find a course at the last minute. It’s really about access and considering the needs of our students and coming up with a product that is as convenient as possible for them.”

When Law first implemented a no-cancellation policy in 1999, he was president of Lone Star College-Montgomery, a community college in suburban Houston. His fellow administrators in the Lone Star College System had clear reservations about the policy, says Law.

“The pressure for them to increase their customer service increased after that,” Law says.

He recalls receiving a phone call from a dean at another campus when Montgomery didn’t cancel a high-end calculus course, even though only a handful of students signed up for it. The dean suggested Montgomery cancel the course so that students there could enroll at her campus.

“It wasn’t my intention to steal any of the other college’s students,” says Law, who left Montgomery in 2002. “Our goal was just to optimize our resources. But some students from other community colleges did, in fact, show up at our campus for certain courses.”

Yet for all its supposed benefits, Lone Star no longer offers the policy, even though it was a key feature in the college’s 1999 marketing campaign, says Steve Scheffler, dean of college relations at Lone Star. Scheffler suggests a decline in the college’s rapid enrollment growth and sizeable state budget cuts contributed to dropping the policy.

“Careful planning was needed to make sure it was a successful program, and that careful planning is a legacy that continues here today,” says Scheffler.  “We still have a remarkably low level of canceled sections.”

Informed that Lone Star abandoned the policy, Law wasn’t surprised. He says the overwhelming majority of community colleges still subscribe to an age-old cost-effective model that suggests scrapping courses when they don’t attract a certain “magic” low enrollment number.

Detailed Planning

In truth, even at Tallahassee, adjustments are made for classes attracting few students. If, say, a course attracts only one student, that student would be encouraged to work out an individualized study plan with the faculty member—  whatever would be needed to preserve the academic integrity of the course.  The guaranteed policy also applies to all online classes but not to continuing education.

At  Ivy Tech, if one of the courses in the working adults program drops to, say, two students, the general student population will be welcomed to attend the class.  With only two students, adds Stephan, that class might also only be offered online.

Law acknowledges it may be easier to guarantee courses at one large, bustling campus like Tallahassee, which next fall will offer 1,500 class sections.  Community colleges with satellite campuses may experience more difficulty filling certain classes, he says, in part because those remote locations generally draw fewer students.

Nervous Deans

When Law proposed the no-cancellation policy at Tallahassee, deans were “very nervous,” says Barbara Sloan, the college’s vice president for academic affairs. They feared faculty members would produce undersized class loads for which they would be held responsible, she says.

Administrators planned for the new policy for about one year. Still, it took several iterations of offering the guaranteed class schedule before deans, understood and warmed to the policy. Law says it took time for them to trust he wouldn’t penalize them for offering low-enrollment courses.

Now Tallahassee administrators say they wouldn’t return to the previous method of receiving a “wish list” of classes from faculty members. Some of those attracted few students and were thus canceled, says Law. The doubt about which classes would be filled contributed to lingering uncertainty about expected revenues and hampered  establishing a reliable budget.

Under the college’s guaranteed policy, deans go back three years and note, for example, how many sections of English Composition I were offered at what times and whether there were enrollment fluctuations. Administrators also take into account competition from other courses, whether certain dual-enrollment classes held at Tallahassee-area high schools affect particular course attendance, and whether new or revised programs at nearby Florida State and Florida A & M universities, where many Tallahassee students transfer, played a role.

All that additional information and analysis leads to more certainty about what and how many classes to offer and to more predictable enrollment expectations. If certain courses do fall short, it’s not a major issue considering the hundreds of classes that do meet enrollment expectations.

“The trick is not to put all your courses out there on Day 1 of registration,” says Law.  “I can deal with increased enrollment by simply opening up new sections. If that demand doesn’t occur, I save money, but I haven’t canceled on students.”

Some Tallahassee administrators believe guaranteeing classes is a significant factor in attracting students. The college’s enrollment has risen an average of 3 to 4 percent per year since the policy was instituted, says Sloan.

Meanwhile, student retention has increased about 2 percent every year since the guaranteed schedule was implemented in 2004, although Sloan declines to say whether the policy is the primary reason. Financial aid has also grown appreciably, another indicator students intend to stick around.

At Ivy Tech’s College for Working Adults, retention from fall 2007 to spring 2008 was an impressive 83 percent, says Stephan. She clearly credits some of that to the guaranteed classes that enable students to graduate in two years.

The no-cancellation policies also contribute to revealing inefficiencies at both Ivy Tech and Tallahassee. For instance, Ivy Tech’s working adult program, which offers nine associate degrees, requires students to take half their courses in the classroom and the other half online. That means fewer students are attending class in person, providing additional seats that could be filled by other students or the general student population, says Stephan.

Law says that Tallahassee’s exhaustive three-year analysis of courses also exposes early warning trends about enrollment declines and other factors to help the college prepare for budget shortfalls. Just this past academic year, the state of Florida whacked community college funding by 7.5 percent, he says. By eschewing low-enrollment courses and only adding sections when needed, the college can better withstand such state cuts, he says.

The detailed assessment of class schedules has also exposed patterns on which instructors have trouble filling classrooms. Previously, Tallahassee might have canceled a low-enrollment course and given that instructor a “To Be Announced” class so that students wouldn’t know who is teaching, says Sloan. But with the guaranteed schedule, all the faculty members are largely known. So if students still aren’t enrolling in an instructor’s course, it becomes highlighted.

“It becomes a conversation between the dean and faculty member,” Sloan says.

While perhaps few, if any, faculty members enjoy that exposure, it has not led Will Benedicks, chairman of the history department, to fire any instructors. Just like before, Benedicks, says skimpy class loads may lead to closer evaluation and adjunct mentoring.

Generally, full-time and adjunct faculty members favor the guaranteed class schedule, he says. It also provides some predictability for their schedules, knowing a course they planned to teach won’t be canceled. They no longer need fret about class loads and whether they may be told at the last minute to teach another course for which they may be less prepared, he says

Initially, a number of Tallahassee faculty members resisted the policy, fearing it meant less autonomy in determining their classes and launching new courses. But once they realized they still had considerable say in their course offerings, that worry diminished.

The guaranteed schedule is especially treasured by adjuncts. That’s important because Tallahassee, like so many community colleges across the country, hope to enhance adjuncts’ loyalty and the top ones are often wooed by nearby colleges and universities.

“For adjuncts, the guaranteed schedule eliminates a lot of concern about how much time they should put into a class that is down the road and then might not even be offered,” says Benedicks. “We get better prepared adjunct professors, because they know they will teach the course.”

Madeleine Hirsiger-Carr, an adjunct history instructor, lauds the policy:  “I think it’s superb because we can better plan our lives,” she says. 

Biggest Beneficiaries

Law and other guaranteed-schedule backers agree the biggest beneficiary is students. Increased enrollment and the painstaking planning helped uncover inefficiencies, which helped the college lower tuition. Once ranked among Florida’s highest, Tallahassee’s tuition is now the lowest amongst community colleges in the state, Law says.

Moreover, the comprehensive planning resulted in making the class schedule available sooner than before. That gives students more time to receive sound counseling in establishing their long-range academic plan.

A guaranteed schedule especially helps late-arriving students or the first-generation collegians who aren’t familiar with college systems.

“Anybody who’s been to college and had a class that they really needed get canceled,” says Ivy Tech’s Stephan, “understands the value of the guaranteed schedule.”

Retal, the single mother of three from Tallahassee, certainly does.

 “My goal is to finish in two years, not five years,” she says. 


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