You are here

Community Colleges

Floor Plans

Using scheduling technology—and practical policy—to accommodate higher enrollments
University Business, July/August 2012
Through careful scheduling, leaders at Howard Community College have ensured more classes are offered throughout the day so that buildings don't stand empty.
Through careful scheduling, leaders at Howard Community College have ensured more classes are offered throughout the day so that buildings don't stand empty.

A hallmark of community colleges is being nimble enough in their class offerings to respond quickly to the changing needs of their students. Additional faculty can be hired to teach the new courses, but classroom space is often a fixed resource that isn’t so easily added. “We would not turn down a new classroom building,” says Tony Honeycutt, provost of Somerset Community College (Ky.) with a laugh, “but we can meet our needs for classroom space through better scheduling.”

Community college leaders are realizing that scheduling technology can help the institution meet the challenge of using classroom space wisely while helping their students succeed. “Not only does the college reap a cost saving and a more efficient delivery of classes, but the students also save if they can take a sequence of classes and stay on goal,” Honeycutt says.

And, savings realized through efficient use of space can be passed along to students, points out Doug Roberts, system director of budget and financial planning for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Data Scrubbing

As with any new software system being adopted, an amount of legwork has to take place prelaunch. “You have to write down everything you do the old way and what the problems are with that and what you want to see in the new system,” advises Carolyn Marie Whelchel, who handles the master calendar at Fullerton College (Calif.). This method allowed her campus to narrow the selection to the Event Management Systems program from Dean Evans & Associates. Prior to that, handwritten request sheets and an Excel spreadsheet were used to track invoices. EMS has since streamlined processes.

In Kentucky, adopting Ad Astra was a system-level decision aimed at providing college leaders with a tool to better utilize existing space. “We had several colleges that had the question of offering more sections, but not knowing whether they had the space,” Roberts explains. “That’s a hard question to answer if you don’t have a program that can help you look at it.”

An important first step when transitioning to new scheduling software is to take a thorough inventory of classroom space. When Somerset staff gathered data for the transition to Ad Astra, they found both duplicate information and conflicting records. “The same classroom might be coded differently in each database,” Honeycutt explains.

It is important to know not only how many academic spaces there are on campus, but also how many seats are in each, as well as the types of technology available.

The time tested “garbage in, garbage out” saying applies to space management. Accurate schedules cannot be produced if the system has inaccurate classroom information.

Keep in mind that the inventory should be regularly updated. Technology gets added, construction takes place, and desks get moved.

Classrooms at Somerset are audited regularly against the occasions when faculty borrow desks from another room when they end up with more students than anticipated. “Now the software program has two classrooms that are messed up,” says Honeycutt. “We’re constantly working with faculty [to understand] that instead of moving desks, we have to move the class to a new space.”

The inventory will also help identify bottlenecks that make efficient scheduling difficult. In some cases, faculty might be complaining about a lack of adequate classroom space, when what is actually lacking is smart classrooms. At Somerset, some faculty members regularly requested having all their classes in the same room based on available technology. The solution, says Honeycutt: “We’ve made an effort to standardize the technology that is in our classrooms. We’re going toward instructor stations that have projectors and cameras.”

Flexible seating options also increase the usability of existing space. “We’re seeing a bottleneck with some rooms wanting tablet armchairs and others wanting big desks,” says Steve Horvath, associate vice president of academic affairs at Howard Community College (Md.). “We found if we got tables and chairs with wheels, you could rearrange easily.”

Standardizing enrollment caps to match the number of seats in the majority of classrooms also makes scheduling easier. “If you have a room that holds 25 people, but have only one 25-seat lecture, then your room will sit empty,” cautions Sue Brehm, a consultant who helps colleges with scheduling concerns.

During her time as director of enrollment services at Chippewa Valley Technical College (Wis.), Brehm used TimeTabler from Infosilem to help conduct research on space, which revealed that both class sizes and classrooms were inconsistent in sizing. By standardizing headcount and making as many rooms as they could fit 27 chairs, they were better able to utilize space.

Broad Shoulders

Once physical limitations have been addressed, the trickier issue of class times can be approached. By reviewing previous semesters, registrars can determine what times and days students prefer to take classes.

Of course, what times faculty want to teach classes also needs to be considered. At Lane Community College (Ore.), Programmer/Analyst Alen Bahret uses the reporting features in College-NET X25 to show the peaks and valleys in occupancy, from 6 a.m. through evening classes. “I can show them where the open time is. Whether you will get people signing up is another thing, but that is a time there won’t be conflict.” For example, 9 a.m. is a peak time, there is a slump in the late afternoon, and then there’s another spike in the evening.

The peak time at most community colleges is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. While some campuses are taking the extreme step of scheduling classes at midnight or 6 a.m., others are just expanding the peak time into the “shoulder” hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

In any degree program, there are required classes for graduation. Administrators have discovered that students will enroll in these mandatory classes when offered at less desirable times. It’s a tactic Howard is employing with some core courses. “They are going to take those courses because they need to,” Horvath says, adding that “finding faculty is sometimes a challenge.”

The tradeoff: By shifting prime classes to the shoulder hours, time is freed up during peak hours to offer new or innovative classes faculty want to teach but might usually receive lower enrollments or not run at all. After the semester starts, reporting helps determine why some classes received lower enrollments and offers guidance on what classes to eventually cancel or consolidate.
Somerset leaders discovered duplicate sections with low enrollment that they were able to combine to free up classroom space.

“The efficiency is being able to utilize the space we have in a more effective way,” says Honeycutt. He cautions that it is not a matter of running a report and cancelling low enrollment classes out of hand. “We take the list and send it to our academic group and ask them to consider the classes for cancellation or why to save them,” he explains.

Right Class at the Right Time

While students are likely to enroll in the classes they need no matter what times they are offered, it’s important to ensure the proper classes are actually offered. “We’re wrestling with the business problem of 'should we be trying to fit in all the classes we’re offering’ or 'are we offering the best classes in the best manner,’ ” says Horvath.

After students expressed frustration at being unable to take the classes they needed, Somerset leaders analyzed schedules and realized some core courses were being offered at conflicting times. Because of that, “instead of being able to take four or five classes, they could only take three,” says Honeycutt. That not only extended their time to graduation, but also made their education more expensive.

In some cases, administrators can have scheduling software interface with the student information system (SIS). KCTCS is working to integrate Platinum Analytics with the Student Backpack in PeopleSoft to facilitate scheduling efforts, Roberts shares. “We’ll be able to see what their declared program is and what time they can or want to take classes. Once we get that information, we’ll be able schedule classes that allow students to take classes most efficiently to graduate on time.”

Since community college students often have work and family obligations, they might not be available to take classes at certain hours of the day. “If we could add information to the algorithm that a group of students could take class at 4 p.m., that will allow us to serve them better,” says Honeycutt.

Campus leaders can already run reports to determine the size of a cohort in various stages of a degree program. By cross-referencing that data with the scheduling software, they can ensure the proper number of sections of core courses are offered during a semester. Of course, the success of that strategy relies on students taking the classes in the proper sequence, Brehm points out.

Standardizing class times helps. If some classes are 1.5 hours long and others are 2 hours long, there will be wasted half-hour blocks throughout the day. Scheduling software can provide a clearer view of the issue so campus leaders can make data-driven decisions.

Lane uses a schedule grid divided into half-hour blocks, which allows them to ensure classrooms aren’t empty, a common occurrence before they adopted CollegeNET in 2003. “We were able to find underutilized space and ease the load,” Bahret says.

In some cases, block times can’t be avoided. Bahret points out that career technical programs have different demands in terms of space and time compared to regular transfer programs. “Auto body might have a three-hour block of time from 9 to noon, but then needs gen ed time in the afternoon,” he says. A scheduling system can help people visualize those demands.

Balancing such special requirements is easier when the schedule is in black and white on a grid. It can also help with decisions about substantial changes to a program, such as changing to a four-day schedule, says Brehm. “You can run a simulation to see what the impact will be.”

Policy Power

“Scheduling is a very emotional process,” cautions Brehm. “It’s like taxes and religion, you can’t talk about it.”

While some courses might have lab requirements that restrict them to certain locations on campus, the human factor is not to be underestimated either. “It takes some craftsmanship on top of the technology to get the results that are needed,” agrees Horvath. “When we first set it up, we thought you would press a button and be done.” But that’s not the way it actually works, he adds. “There is a lot of talking that needs to take place as well.”

“Scheduling is three pronged. If you focus on one area it will make it difficult for the other two,” says Brehm, noting that there must be a balance between faculty, student, and facility needs.

One place politics enters scheduling is if certain departments have claimed ownership of a set of rooms. At Somerset, academic divisions utilizing their rooms to 70 percent will maintain priority, but if they drop below 70 percent then another division might have access, says Honeycutt.

If a department has claimed a block of rooms and prefers to keep them available for ad hoc meetings, removing them from the classroom inventory, it can create the illusion of a lack of space on campus. It is best to keep the general classroom space under the control of the registrar or scheduling manager as much as possible, experts say.

Brehm says the decentralized system many higher ed institutions use to build a schedule can make it difficult to utilize classrooms efficiently because of the ownership issue. She advises looking at general classroom space and determining whether there is really a need for a department to “own” it. “Once you start placing restrictions on classes, it makes it difficult to build the schedule,” she says.

While a physical disability might be a legitimate reason to request rooms that are always on the ground floor, a history of teaching in a certain location probably isn’t.

When faculty members have a desire to teach in the same classroom, or in a location that’s close to their offices, clear policies as well as an appeal process, can help. A scheduling committee composed of representatives from administration and faculty can mediate conflicts.

The exception process must be clear to everyone, scheduling experts note. While a physical disability might be a legitimate reason to request rooms that are always on the ground floor, a history of teaching in a certain location probably isn’t.

When final exams were added to the scheduling system three years ago, campus leaders at Lane were surprised to learn about the jockeying that took place as faculty members tried to move their exam to the beginning of the week so they could leave town, shares Bahret.

Outside Interference

Accommodating community organizations is another challenge for community college leaders since it might prevent them from utilizing meeting spaces for other purposes. “We maintain those areas because we are a community college and we feel there is a need for that space to be available,” says Honeycutt.

On most campuses, use by outside groups is managed as an event in the scheduling system and does not conflict with
academic use. While academic use of campus space is given priority, most outside groups are interested in evening or weekend times anyway.

“Summer has become a challenge with special programming for high school students,” acknowledges Horvath. “There is the illusion that there is plenty of space in the summer and then one year it all hit.”

Since off-campus users might not be familiar with the facilities, it’s important to review their requests carefully. At Fullerton, smaller rooms open onto one of the large conference rooms. One year Whelchel from Fullerton College found it necessary to contact a user to confirm he had intended to book two small rooms on opposite sides of the main room. She has also learned to put a cushion from half an hour to an hour for clean up and resetting the room between meetings.

When construction or renovations are going to take rooms offline, it’s important to remember to consider the impact on outside rentals as well, so the campus events department is prepared. “The word has gotten out in Orange County that we have space to rent,” says Whelchel. “The impact on space is that we got bond money a few years ago and we’re still renovating. One building was torn down and the other was gutted. We’re down two buildings.”

The Green Factor

While the goal of more efficient scheduling might be to maximize class times, the contribution to campus sustainability efforts shouldn’t be overlooked.

Campus leaders are just starting to realize their scheduling software can be leveraged in this manner. “We tried, rather successfully,” says Bahret. “During weekends and evenings in summer we try to focus events in certain buildings to better use the HVAC.” Tactics include placing classes in athletic facilities or the convention center since those spaces are already being used.

Ensuring that classes are clustered in the same building, rather than spread across campus in the summer and winter can reduce heating and cooling bills. Roberts has heard one of the universities in Kentucky saved over $900,000 on utility bills by consolidating classes to a single building and moving as many offices as possible to a central area. “That was a very interesting idea,” he says. “Especially in the summertime, we want to schedule better for saving costs.”

Colleges are looking into interfacing scheduling software with building HVAC systems so air-conditioning can automatically turn on before and turn off after an event takes place. At LCC, campus leaders are working to understand building offsets to determine how long before an event the air conditioning should turn on. “We’re hoping to tighten it up,” says Bahret. They are also prioritizing the use of a LEED gold building on campus that has a passive cooling system.

Where integration isn’t possible, he supplies a spreadsheet to the HVAC tech who can program the system by hand to coordinate with usage.

An easier interface that is already being used is to synchronize the schedule with the lighting system. The lighting for the track and soccer facilities at Lane, which are regularly rented out, is controlled through an interface with CollegeNET. “The system can also control the doors locking and unlocking,” says Bahret. “We try to maximize as much of the tool as we can so people don’t have to run around doing that.”

Don’t Forget the People

While campus leaders might initially adopt a scheduling system to maximize space utilization, they often realize the impact of the system is more far reaching. “Our goal through all of this process is to improve our retention rates,” says Honeycutt. “I think we can do that through a better schedule that allows students to take classes when they need them.”

However, campus leaders shouldn’t be too quick to trust all the decisions to a machine. “Sometimes people think scheduling software will solve all their problems, but it won’t since there are people involved,” cautions Brehm. “But it can help provide consistency.