Enough For Everyone

I’m at the NCSA conference in Dearborn (outside Detroit), and just finished my presentation. This year, like last year, I researched student difficulties balancing real life and the college class schedule. Below is the text I based the presentation from – not the actual paper, because the statistics makes my head swim, and I wrote the thing! Not only is this a difficulty for current college students, but also for our country as a whole. Our society is requiring more and more education to just stay afloat, but working and going to school at the same time is difficult enough. There’s no reason we should make it any harder.

It’s easy to see choices when we’re outside the system. But at the same time, while we’re looking from outside, we often forget that we are in our own system of constructed knowledge. We have our own assumptions about the right thing, or the best thing, or the easy thing.

Right now, you have chosen. Perhaps you would have liked to go to another panel. My advisor had to choose between attending this one and presenting her own work.
I had to choose. Right now, I would normally be injecting someone with radioactivity, having been on the clock for just over three hours. At the same time, the second session of classes for my university has just started.

And that’s the problem.

I’m going to spend the next few minutes talking about how things have changed, for both students and postsecondary education. We’ll talk about how we can use the examples of older students to predict what their problems are, and how these are directly impacted by the college schedule. And I’ll talk about the research I did at a two year school and four year school, both in the same city, the problems students had there, and the implications of that research.

When you look at older students – like me – we have some real problems when its time to go back to school. We have full-time jobs, families, homes, or other worries to occupy our time. We have lives and demands outside of college. As the economy has worsened, more and more of us have come to colleges and universities. Students over the age of twenty five make up almost half of the undergraduate population across the country, and there’s little reason to expect that to change.

But it’s not just us anymore. More and more younger students – the so-called traditional ones – are having to balance outside pressures. Taking four years off in order to study has moved out of reach, as younger students must work to actually support themselves and avoid crippling debt. The student body and its needs are changing.

At the same time, universities and colleges are finding themselves needing us. Endowments and state funding is down, and many schools are facing budget problems. They need every student they can get. At the same time, students need the degrees and skills that postsecondary education provides. Balancing work and school schedules to succeed in school and life is extremely difficult.

Measuring the problem isn’t straightforward. One reason is due to methodological problems. One study found that the surprisingly low reported incidence of class conflicts was due to many of their students only taking one class per term. Those students were able to find a class – but they could not address whether or not they would have taken more classes if they could fit them into their schedule.

Older students also provide a theoretical reason why capturing this data is so difficult. They view their work and home responsibilities as an integral part of their lives, not as a mere backdrop to getting an education. When childcare and jobs cause conflicts they’re seen as problems with life, not class schedule problems.

This different framework explains the apparent conflicts in the literature. For example, the number of hours worked is a far less accurate predictor of dropping out than a student’s sense of “satisfaction” with their institution and their education. If the student feels satisfied with their education, they’re more likely to make sacrifices in the other areas of their lives.
There are some indirect ways to measure real demand for class times. When given the choice between equivalent lecture and online classes, many times older students will choose online classes. When online classes are offered, students will access the lessons, quizzes, and tests outside of regular class times.

This indicates that supply does not match demand. The supply is limited and constrained by the traditional notions of class schedules. The bureaucracy of the institutions limits what offerings are available, not the needs of students.

Gary Thompson directly measured the difference between constrained and unconstrained demand. When professors – the “experts” – created a schedule that they believed best fit student’s needs, it did no better than a control schedule in matching students to classes. In contrast, an unconstrained schedule developed by a heuristic algorhythm using direct student input did significantly better in matching students to classes. The professors were operating with information inequality, working from anecdotal information from students in past terms that did not accurately reflect the needs of the actual student population.

Last year, I looked at class preferences at a four year institution. I found two surprising things. First, that the greatest predictor of willingness to take an online class was having taken one in the past. Secondly, that there were two separate cohorts – a body of students who strongly preferred traditional daytime classes during the week, and another nearly separate body of students who preferred classes during the evenings, online, and weekends.

This year, I revisited that data, but also included students from a local two-year community college. The relationship between these two institutions includes an assumption that the community college also serves as a “feeder school” for the four year institution. I had seven main questions that I wanted answers for.

  1. If the amount of financial support had an effect on difficulty scheduling classes.
  2. If the degree of difficulty in scheduling classes had an effect on student satisfaction with their school.
  3. If students who wanted traditional and non-traditional class times were separate groups.
  4. If the class times desired by students at the two-year and four-year institution were the same.
  5. If the students faced the same types of difficulties at both the two-year and four-year institution.
  6. If the students faced the same degree of difficulty at both institutions.
  7. If the strongest predictor of willingness to take a web-based class was prior experience with web-based education.

In aggregate, the degree of difficulty in scheduling classes was the same between both institutions, but the types of problems differed. More students at the two-year college had problems due to intrinsic factors within the school schedule itself, while students at the four-year school had more problems due to extrinsic life circumstances. Part of this might be due to the two-year schools’ recent switch to an entirely online scheduling system and it’s “open enrollment” system in comparison to the four-year institution’s tiered scheduling by grade level.
Despite the differences, at both institutions there were significant correlations between working more hours and providing a greater degree of support to the household and difficulty scheduling classes.

I found again that having taken any online class was the strongest predictor in their willingness to desiring another one, moreso than age or self-reported computer expertise.
I also found that students who wanted any class outside of regular hours would be open to any other class outside regular hours. For example, those who wanted web classes were more likely to desire evening and Saturday classes. Likewise, wanting any daytime class was a strong predictor of desiring other daytime classes. There were nonsignificant negative correlations between wanting a daytime class and wanting a non-traditional class time; however, my convenience sample at the four-year institution was comprised entirely of students taking a daytime class.

Perhaps the most disturbing was the strong negative correlation between satisfaction with the institution and difficulty scheduling classes. Remember, for students who have outside responsibilities, satisfaction with the institution and their education has a high predictive value for determining if a student will drop out.
It’s tempting to write this off as a problem that students make for themselves. Yet I found a significant positive correlation between the aggregate problems that students had and their openness and desire to take classes at different times. This strongly suggests that the primary responsibility for these problems lies not with student attitude, but with the structure of the institutions themselves.

There are additional problems that respondents put at the end of the survey – needing more classes for their major, more spots in each class, more clas times offered so required classes did not conflict with each other, and more forewarning of classes offered in future terms so that students could plan ahead.
It is already difficult for students to guess what classes will be offered in future terms; however, when the schedule is restricted, students need more forewarning so they can ensure they get the classes they need.

An ideal solution would be to shape class offerings to student needs – and letting the market decide. Barring that, the problems become practical ones of human resources and physical space. Solutions such as web-based classes, or hybrid classes which meet both virtually and in real life appear to be the quickest and most feasible solution at this time. Given my repeated findings, it seems imparative that more students have early exposure to hybrid or web-based classes so that these resources can be fully utilized.

Despite the limitations of the convenience sample that I employed for my research, there is one thing that we can be assured of. These students, despite their difficulties, have managed to precariously balance the demands of a work schedule and school schedule so far. Unmeasured here are the potential students who would attend, but have been unable to reconcile these conflicting responsibilities.
There are many barriers to obtaining a college education. It is imparative that something as mundane as the class schedule does not number among them.