Curricular Efficiency:  Improving the Recurring Decisions that Drive Average Class Size

Posted by Steve Probst on Sep 6, 2021 3:15:00 PM

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Average class size is one of the primary factors driving cost per Student Credit Hour (SCH).  But average class size is a bit of an over-simplification:  in my home office, my dog and I together have an average of three legs, but that doesn’t really represent either of us very well.

Here’s an example that illustrates the range at an institution that does not have any really big lectures:

Bar graph showing section counts by class size

Note that, even after excluding independent studies, this institution still reports 179 sections with five or fewer students.  As the provost at a different institution said to me earlier this week, “If we have only two Accounting majors, I still have to offer all the courses they need to graduate.”

For the example above, 216 classes – the biggest cluster – have six to ten students per section.  Half the lecture sections have fewer than six or more than 25 students.

If the 60 sections of 5 students were adjusted to match the institution’s median of 15 students per class, the number of sections would drop from 60 to 20.  Assuming an average teaching load of 8 classes per year, dropping 40 sections would save approximately $500,000 per year 1 in full time faculty costs.  If the sections were taught by adjuncts at $2,000 per section, the savings would be $80,000.  

So, how can an institution reduce the number of smaller sections?  Here are some of the opportunities Gray’s clients have identified and implemented:

  • Cycle Courses:  Related courses can be put on a cycle rather than teaching each one every term.  For example, one university had three 300-level courses in a department that were all required for certain students.  They changed some requirements so that the courses could be taken in any sequence rather than as prerequisites for each other, and then rescheduled them so that only one of the courses would be taught each term.  Students would take all three but could take each in the order it was available.  This eliminated two sections of teaching each term in a relatively small department.
  • Consolidate Content.  Courses with similar content can be combined, within a department or across departments.  The iconic example for this is introductory courses in Statistics.  At many institutions, there are distinct versions offered in Math, Business, Social Sciences, and other areas – with mostly overlapping content.  Several Gray clients have already consolidated these courses, and several others are looking at doing so.
  • Limit New Courses.  New courses usually increase faculty workload and cost, but not revenue.  The new courses must be taught, so unless other courses or sections are dropped, workload increases. But very few students select a university for a single course, so a new course has no effect on revenue.  Spreading a fixed number of students across more course offerings inherently reduces curricular efficiency.
  • Prune Courses.  At every institution, some courses are sparsely attended, poorly taught, or unimportant to their discipline.  Pruning these courses reduces cost and focuses faculty attention on more important and larger classes.
  • Reduce Independent Studies.  Faculty usually receive much lower pay per credit hour for teaching independent studies, but they do take faculty time, and that in turn is going to be compensated either explicitly or by substituting for other faculty activity (through releases, or negotiated standard course loads, or time diverted from other valuable activities like advising, service, or research).  Furthermore, proliferating independent studies may be a symptom of other issues, such as not scheduling sufficient course sections when students need them to graduate, not advising students effectively enough about course schedules, or not paying enough attention to when independent studies are the best way to meet student needs vs. when they are not. 
  • Revise General Education Courses.  At many institutions, Gen Ed courses serve two very different purposes:  providing students with a well-rounded baseline education, and providing individual departments with courses to teach that can occupy and justify faculty resources that otherwise might be underused.  Pruning Gen Ed courses can reduce the teaching load for a department, reduce hiring requirements, and trim overload or adjunct costs.  Alternatively, when a department has more faculty than current student demand can support, redeploying those faculty to teach Gen Eds can be a productive use of their skills and time, while reducing the Gen Ed sections taught by departments with tighter staffing situations could free up faculty to teach courses required within their programs.

Identifying these opportunities is much easier – and avoiding false cost-savings actions that don’t actually reduce costs – with the right data at hand.  This is a screenshot from Gray’s PES+ Economics tool, which makes an institution’s curricular efficiency data accessible to the people who need it.

PES+ Economics Tool Data Screen Shot

Note that all the opportunities described above typically arise during routine, recurring decision processes:  course scheduling for each term, annual hiring requests, requests for independent studies each term, etc.  So the key to improving and sustaining curricular efficiency is improving the processes for these routine decisions.  This includes providing useful data, at a relevant level of detail (course and section within department), in a format that makes it easy for the decision-makers to consider these factors as one important set of considerations.  It includes ensuring that the decision makers know how to access and use this data.  And it necessitates that the institution’s senior administrators, when they assess proposed decisions that affect curricular efficiency, insist that these decisions reflect economic information and the institution’s strategic priorities as well as traditional considerations.

1.This estimate assumes a reduction of 40 sections and 8 sections per faculty member.  The reduced course load would require five fewer faculty, at an average of $100,000 in wages and benefits per faculty member.


Don't miss the first article in Steve's Curricular Efficiency Series: 

What Drives Curricular Efficiency

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Topics: Curricular Efficiency, Academic Program Economics, class size