Achieving Curricular Efficiency

April 8, 2020

What if reducing overhead costs and cutting too-small programs were not the only practical ways to control college costs?

If a department offers five electives to serve 75 students, then the average class size for these electives would be 15 students. If the department adds another elective, all six electives would be likely to have enough students to justify offering these classes under typical policies. shutterstock_648204952However, the department would have just added to teaching load – and costs and potentially staffing – without increasing the actual amount of teaching and learning being done.

In higher ed, teaching costs naturally increase over time. Faculty may create new courses that reflect their interests and beliefs about what should be taught. Sections of courses may be added to increase accessibility to different cohorts of students. At some institutions, independent studies proliferate to meet students’ scheduling needs. We have also seen colleges reduce expected teaching loads to allow for increased non-teaching goals: administration, research, service, etc. The net effect of these well-intended actions is that more faculty are needed to enable the same amount of student learning. We refer to this balance between faculty resources and student learning requirements as curricular efficiency.

Few institutions have much of a formal process to maintain curricular efficiency. Colleges and universities often have policies to cancel courses with insufficient enrollment – but this is simplistic and misses a broader opportunity.

Images of course that make money vs the ones that dont

At most universities, in many departments, some courses are going to have instructional costs that exceed their share of student revenue. The illustration above shows these courses as red dots. (Courses that lose money are low on the chart, while courses with revenue that exceeds their costs are high. Big courses are on the right, small courses on the left.) Note that while money-losing courses tend to have lower enrollment, there are plenty of courses with similar enrollment levels that do provide a positive financial contribution.

Gray’s approach to achieving curricular efficiency includes several essential elements:

  • Calculating and understanding the revenue and direct costs associated with every course section delivered by the institution
  • Calculating and understanding the efficiency of every department, course, and section – in terms of direct instructional cost per student credit hour
  • Enabling academic departments to consider this information in their routine budgeting processes
  • Coaching faculty and administrative leadership through using this information to make decisions that reflect consideration of multiple factors: mission and educational goals, faculty availability and capabilities, student needs, and financial constraints

With this approach, faculty and administration can be partners in achieving curricular efficiency.

If you would like to see Curricular Efficiency in action we will be talking about it live on our Demand Trends Webinar on April 23 at 2:00 PM. Register Here 

Steve Probst is a Senior Partner at Gray. He is a pioneer of new approaches to educational program strategy, city selection, program economics, and pricing. If you would like to learn more about Curricular Efficiency or have any questions you can reach Steve here.

Gray Associates

Gray Associates, Inc. provides the best available data, software, and facilitated processes to help higher education institutions make high-stakes decisions regarding academic programs, pricing, and locations.

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Gray Associates, Inc. is a software and services firm focused on higher education. We help education clients develop fact-based institutional and marketing strategies that maximize outcomes for students, the school, and its constituencies.

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