The Tyranny of Small Numbers At Intermediate Scale

I have written previously about the negative effects of small class size on how I teach, which I’m noticing again this semester in a class of only ten students. I have also written about low-enrollment institutions like Mills College. If your employer is small, tuition-dependent, and the surrounding area is losing population, it is time for you to worry. But today I am going to explore size effects at the intermediate level by looking at how enrollments affect curricula.

As the chair of a small department that manages three separate majors, none of which graduates more than a dozen students per year, I am hypothetically responsible for balancing two  competing agendas — filling classrooms with students who will likely never again take a course in the same disciplinary area, and offering a sufficiently diverse menu of advanced courses for students majoring in that disciplinary area.

In a recent discussion about one of my department’s programs and the upcoming academic year, I advocated in favor of offering a number of introductory course sections that is similar to the number that has been offered previously. These course sections typically enroll thirty to thirty-five students each, in contrast to upper-level courses that might enroll a dozen or fewer. The higher head count per class reduces overload and adjunct compensation, a cost that has exploded at my university because of a lack of oversight by deans and provosts. It also means more students are exposed to this particular field of study, increasing the chance that some might select it as a first or second major in a future semester.

Someone else instead supported an increase in the number of upper-level courses. This, the person claimed, would better serve students in the major — by giving them more topics to choose from — and perhaps increase the attractiveness of the major to current and potential future students at the university.

Since I’m a firm believer in evidence-based decision making, I collected historical enrollment data and built this spreadsheet to look for patterns. It shows that the total headcount in the advanced courses over four years has held steady at just over one hundred students, despite the annual number of those courses varying from five to seven. And the number of majors over the same period hasn’t varied in relation to how many of these courses appeared in the schedule. In other words, it appears that the number of students willing and able to take upper-level courses is fairly constant, regardless of how many of those courses are offered. My initial inclination is to therefore again schedule seven upper-level courses for the coming academic year.

While it might be worthwhile to add an eighth advanced course to next year’s schedule as an experiment, it has to be on a topic that is conceivably of interest to non-majors. Otherwise it won’t meet mandatory minimum enrollment and will be cancelled. Looking at the spreadsheet, one might conclude that the obvious choice is either N, O, or R, given their large enrollments in previous years. However, O has only eleven students in it this semester. And the large enrollments for N and R are probably due to those courses meeting one night per week, a time that is popular with students. But my university only allows a very limited number of courses to run at night because the finite number of classrooms on campus. Also, O and R have historically been taught by adjuncts because there is only one permanent faculty member in this discipline who teaches a full load every year. As I noted above, I believe that it is financially prudent to limit the hiring of adjunct instructors, especially if doing so prevents full-time faculty, who are paid a lot more than adjuncts, from teaching far fewer students than the low-cost adjuncts. I.e., people should earn their salaries.

Regardless of whether an eighth upper-level course is taught by a full-time or part-time instructor, I believe that the data indicate that it won’t make an appreciable difference in the number of majors if it is added to the schedule. If anyone has an alternative interpretation of the spreadsheet — especially if you think I’m missing something — please comment.

I am not the only department chair facing this kind of dilemma. Given its full-time undergraduate enrollment of only 2,100 students, my employer can no longer afford trying to be all things to all people. Colleges and universities like mine need to identify their strengths and specialize according to the principle of comparative advantage. A curriculum that operates as a motley collection of independently-designed programs, all inadequately resourced and in competition with each other for the small number of students on campus, is not a sound strategy for long-term institutional viability.