Fall Is Coming… | Confessions of a Community College Dean

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Registration for fall classes starts in March. That means we need to have the schedule ready for public perusal by mid-February. That means we need to make decisions about the fall schedule in January.

In a normal year, that’s just part of the cycle. We typically start with the previous fall’s schedule and tweak it, making adjustments based on anticipated enrollment levels and various programmatic changes. Over time, the percentage of online classes would grow a bit each year, but any given year’s schedule looked a lot like the previous year’s.

Of course, this isn’t a normal year. Decisions about the fall schedule have to reflect considered judgments (and/or best guesses) about the state of the pandemic come September. They also have to reflect considered judgments (and/or best guesses) about how many students who sat out this academic year will come back for the next one.

We also added the “remote live” (or “synchronous”) format in 2020; it hadn’t previously been part of our repertoire. It emerged abruptly in March when we had to move classes off campus and became a part of our offerings after that. Now we’ll have to decide the allocation of classes among three formats rather than two.

We won’t have fall grades until January, and it will take some time to analyze them to a useful level. To the extent that they show where the synchronous format worked well and where it didn’t, that may be useful in making decisions. Of course, the data we’ll have will only reflect one semester, and that semester is such an outlier in such obvious ways that its lessons may not be generalizable. But decisions need to be made when they need to be made, based on the best information available at the time.

That was one of the most striking differences I noticed when I moved from faculty to administration. Scholars are always happy to get more evidence, to wait until the picture is clear and to pass judgment after the fact. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk. But in administration, you often don’t have the option of waiting for the dust to settle. The information we’ll have in January will be partial, flawed and arguably fluky; it will also be all we’ll have. When registration time rolls around, we need to have a schedule published, whether we have good information by then or not.

There are ways to mitigate the risks somewhat. For example, regular communication with other colleges can help distinguish local flukes from larger trends. (If everyone around you has enrollments up and yours is down, you may be doing something wrong. If everyone else is down, too, and some more than you, then you’re probably all riding the same wave.) But necessarily small samples, some of which reflect gut decisions, offer only so much help.

At some point, you get the information you can, interpret it as best you can and move forward. Others with the benefit of hindsight will later find fault with it, and some of what they find will be correct. But that doesn’t matter. Learning that it doesn’t matter is intellectually easy but emotionally hard. The future is coming, whether we’re ready or not.

Happily, I have a secret weapon: wise and worldly readers!

Wise and worldly readers who work in higher ed, is your college keeping a synchronous option for next fall? If so, to what degree? Any light folks could shed would be appreciated; as always, I can be reached on Twitter at @deandad, or via email at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!





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