Attention Administrators: More Flexibility in Online/Course Schedules Results in Higher Enrollment

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Small changes and flexibility in course offerings at community colleges can help improve student enrollment in degree programs, according to a joint study being conducted by staff of the University of California, University of Texas and the Federal Trade Commission.

The team looked at data from the California Community College system, including millions of student records and detailed course-level information for most career-technical education (CTE) programs in the state. The study began in March of 2020 and was updated as recently as November.

 The goal of the study was to gain insight into what institutions can do to increase flexibility for students enrolled in CTE programs.

“This is increasingly important as many students have to juggle their studies with work and family demands, and, as a result, may turn to for-profit colleges and programs for their postsecondary training because these institutions profess to offer more flexibility to students,” said Michal Kurlaender, Professor and Department Chair at the University of California Davis’ School of Education.

Especially in light of the pandemic, as community colleges have been hit harder with enrollment decreases than four-year institutions. These numbers are not surprising as students who attend community colleges, on average, are lower income and, therefore, more likely to experience greater economic instability, Kurlaender said.

Offering most classes multiple times per year, at different times of the day, and having online options, will increase the degree of flexibility for CTE students and, in turn, increase the number of students enrolling in CTE programs, According to the results in the report.

Therefore, “changes in program features and scheduling can, at times, be used to accommodate or respond in the short-term to changes in program demand or enrollments,” the report stated. “We find strong evidence that flexibility and program-level student enrollment and completion are positively correlated.”

However, the team found no association between flexibility and the time frame in which it takes a student to complete a degree. Kurlaendar says that the lack of variation in completion times is due to several possible factors, including the idea that a program with more options may appeal to students with jobs or families, so these students have multiple responsibilities to tend to.

Researchers are often focused on interventions (ie. advising, remediation, career pathways, mentoring, online courses, etc.) that help students to succeed at community colleges, says Michel Grosz, an economist at the Federal Trade Commission and a teacher at the School of Public Affairs at American University. But these interventions can be costly for institutions so are not always an option.

“What we're doing here is thinking about some interventions that are highly malleable and, also potentially less costly for colleges to change year to year,” said Grosz. So, while the team cannot conclude that if colleges change a specific aspect of course scheduling that they'll see a particular change in completion rates.

“But what our study does do is point out that these types of changes do matter, even if we can't currently pin down in what way. This would suggest that colleges should be intentional about these attributes of their course offerings, which we think might often be overlooked.”

Kurlaender agrees that while flexibility is important, it will not necessarily lead to increases in completion of degree programs or reduce the time it takes to get a degree.
“For that, institutions must investigate other malleable characteristics of programs, and a host of other supports--in and outside of the classroom--that could ensure that those higher enrollments also lead to corresponding gains in degree success,” she said.