WHITEPAPER

Course Scheduling Essentials for Equitable Access & Completion

Getting students into the courses they need, when they need them, is a cornerstone of student success that institutions can't afford to ignore. Course access helps students stay on track for completion and helps institutions retain students that might otherwise delay or discontinue their education. To achieve this goal, institutions have introduced numerous initiatives including enhanced student advising, degree maps, financial grants to clear account balances, and marketing campaigns encouraging students to register for a full load. However, these efforts do little if the courses students need are inaccessible to them at the times they need them.

Key Learnings

  • Course scheduling challenges that impact students
  • Course scheduling needs by different student groups
  • Best practices to create a student-centric schedule

Introduction

Getting students into the courses they need, when they need them, is a cornerstone of student success that institutions can't afford to ignore. Course access helps students stay on track for completion and helps institutions retain students that might otherwise delay or discontinue their education. To achieve this goal, institutions have introduced numerous initiatives including enhanced student advising, degree maps, financial grants to clear account balances, and marketing campaigns encouraging students to register for a full load. However, these efforts do little if the courses students need are inaccessible to them at the times they need them.

There has always been a lot of stress surrounding enrollment day and windows, often caused by dated technologies as well as the need to enroll in classes in the first 30 seconds before they fill up. - Will V., 4-year, private research university student

Institutions must put students first when creating a course schedule to enhance access and promote student success. Yet, many institutions currently don’t put students’ needs first when building a course schedule. According to a study by AACRAO, the most popular factors for course scheduling include:1

  • Faculty availability (91%)
  • Time block popularity (77%)
  • Course scheduling consistency from year to year (71%)
  • Data from student plans for study (47%)

In fact, ‘data from student plans of study’ ranked the least important factor for creating a course schedule on the survey. As a result, schedules aren’t built with student needs at the forefront. Schedules created with other preferences in mind often result in schedules misaligned with student needs. For example, if co-requisite courses or pre-requisite courses are only offered at the same time, students are forced to choose between courses, potentially delaying their progression. In other instances, if courses aren’t offered at accessible times for the student, they may choose to discontinue their studies or take a partial load.

The number of credits students are able to take, especially in their first year of study, has far reaching implications for on-time completion and graduation. Studies done within the University System of Georgia show that the number of credits students take in their first semester and first year impact the likelihood a student will graduate within six years. According to a study of students at state universities within the University System of Georgia, the following percentage of full-time students graduate within 6 years based on the number of credits taken in the first semester:2

The impact on taking a full load isn’t unique to the state universities in Georgia. Data shows that full-time students in Georgia that took 24 vs. 30 credits in their first year were more likely to graduate at the following rates:

If this is the case, why don’t more first-year students take a full load of courses? In some cases, students are mistaken about what it means to take a full-load. Federal financial aid requires students to enroll in 12 credits a semester to remain eligible as a full-time student, yet students must take 15 credits a semester to graduate on time. In other cases, family, friends, or counselors advise students to take a lighter load initially to “ease into” college. However, institutions themselves may also be the reason students aren’t enrolled in a full course load. According to a survey in 2019 on national student satisfaction and priorities, approximately 1⁄3 of students were unsatisfied with course availability, a strong indicator that a significant number of students were unable to register for appropriate classes and stay on track.3

1 in 3 students were unsatisfied with course availability

Data from Complete College America shows that a staggering number of first year, full-time students do not complete 30 credits.4

Unfortunately, the numbers are even worse for the most vulnerable students. Data shows a lower percentage of Pell students are enrolled in 30 credits in their first year of study than the overall student population.

Time is the enemy of college completion - Stan Jones, Founder of Complete College America

In addition to the impact of a full course load on graduation rates, course access can also impact students financially. Students unable to get into the courses they need may spend additional terms in school or take excess course credits, increasing the amount of tuition they end up paying. The Community College Research Center found that students taking a full course load in their first semester paid 4–14 percent less per credit and 9–19 percent less per degree in tuition and fees.5 Extra time spent in school also deprives students of time they could be in the workforce earning an income. To help students succeed academically and financially, institutions have a moral imperative to ensure students can easily access the courses they need, when they need them. Higher ed leaders should strive to understand:

  • Course scheduling challenges that impact students
  • Course Scheduling needs by different student groups
  • Best practices to create a student-centric schedule

Course Scheduling Challenges

Academic leaders in the course scheduling business know that scheduling is one of the more complicated processes on campus. Administrators must coordinate the schedules of multiple academic units while ensuring that student needs, instructor preferences, and resource constraints are all taken into account. However, student needs often take a backseat due to the way the scheduling process plays out.

During course scheduling, students are often impacted as a result of two flaws in the course scheduling process: errors resulting from manual data entry and poorly optimized scheduling due to a lack of data.

Scheduling Errors Resulting from Manual Data Entry

Class Conflicts

Two or more courses that students need to take in the same term are scheduled at the same time. This may include co-rec, pre-rec, or gen ed courses. If the error isn’t identified until after the registration period opens, institutions must cancel the course and move it to a different, non-competing time.

Results in:

Students in the cancelled course are left scrambling to make the new section time work, find another section of the course, or enroll in a different course that works with their schedule. If students are unable to manage the last-minute change, they are at risk for delayed completion or enrolling in credits that don’t count towards program requirements.

Dual Grading Errors

A course is marked as offering dual grading (i.e., for a grade and pass/fail) when the schedule is public, and the registration window opens. During registration, administrators realize the class should only be offered for a letter grade and must correct the error.

Results in:

A student may enroll in a course for pass/fail if they know it is a subject they aren’t strong in. However, if the course is mistakenly marked for dual grading, students may enroll in it only to find out later that they will receive a letter grade in a course they aren’t as prepared for.

Variable Unit Errors

A course shows it offers variable units on the course schedule; however, the course is only available for a fixed number of units. Once the error is realized, administrators must fix the error, sometimes after students have already enrolled.

Results in:

Students enroll thinking they will receive a certain number of units, only to find out afterwards that the course is offered for a fixed number of units, sometimes below the number they need. If students are enrolled in fewer units than they need, this can impact degree progression, graduation, and financial aid.

Poorly Optimized Scheduling Due to Lack of Data

Course Offerings Misaligned with Student Demand

Institutions don’t examine data on historical enrollment trends or examine current student data to determine student demand for course offerings. Course offerings in the schedule don’t meet student demand for courses that will enable them to progress and graduate on-time.

Results in:

Due to an insufficient number of sections of high-demand courses offered, some students are unable to access the courses they need. As a result, students must deviate from their planned schedule, take a reduced number of credits, or take credits that don’t count towards program requirements. In the case of bottlenecked co-requisite or pre-requisite courses, a delay creates a ripple effect on when students can take future required courses.

High-Demand Courses without Allocated Seats

Institutions assume that the appropriate student groups are able to access courses they need, without examining who actually registers for the course or attempts to register for the course. For example, seats in high-demand courses are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis to students based on their registration window. This ensures only students with the earliest registration window get access to the course, but not necessarily the group of students that needs to take the course. In other cases, seats may only be available to students registered in a certain academic program, shutting out students in other programs.

Results in:

Popular courses intended for first- or second-year students fill up immediately with third- and fourth-year students due to popular demand, shutting younger students out of courses intended for them. A course may be designated as an MBA only course, but select students from other programs (e.g., PhD, MS) should also be allowed to register for the course.

Geographic Scheduling Considerations

Institutions don’t analyze data about where courses that are frequently taken together are offered. Institutions with multiple campuses or geographically spread out campuses may offer courses that are impossible to take together due to extended commuting time between course locations.

Results in:

Students are deterred from taking certain course combinations due to commuting time between courses that is not feasible. Consequently, students must delay taking courses they need, impacting timely progression.

It is easy to say students aren't following the plan or process. But we have to look at ourselves and say are we making it more difficult for students to get through? And what data do we have on this? Roadblocks come up. Students can't get into a class and it can make students change what they do that semester. How often are we doing this to students? - Dr. Casey Bullock, Executive Director and University Registrar at Weber State University

Course Scheduling Considerations by Student Group

While all students are negatively impacted by poor course scheduling practices, certain groups of students are particularly impacted by a schedule built without their needs taken into consideration. For some students, inaccessible course offerings may be a minor annoyance; however, for higher ed’s most vulnerable students, inaccessible course offerings may contribute to students switching to a part-time status or discontinuing their studies altogether. Administrators should evaluate the characteristics of their student body and consider the following scheduling implications for the given student groups:

Student with Children

Questions to Consider

  • How far away are the local schools from campus?
  • What times are local schools in session?
  • Do the local schools or nearby organizations offer before and/or after school child care?

Scheduling Needs

Ensure students are able to complete courses they need during local school hours. Courses should end before the local school gets out, with enough time to commute to the school and pick up their children.

Students relying on public transportation

Questions to Consider

  • How many students rely on public transportation to get to campus?
  • What type of public transportation do they rely on(e.g., buses, trains)?
  • What time does the first public transportation option arrive to campus and when does the last one depart?

Scheduling Needs

Ensure courses aren’t scheduled before the first public transportation arrives or after the last public transportation option leaves. Students should have enough time to walk to and from campus to access public transportation.

Employed Students

Questions to Consider

  • How many students hold jobs off-campus?
  • What types of industries are students employed in and what does this mean for their schedule?
  • How far away from campus are major employers of students?

Scheduling Needs

Offer courses that allow students to complete their studies either before or after they have to go to work. Limit long periods of time between classes that require students to be on campus for extended periods of time and may interfere with their work schedules. For example, if many students work in retail and hospitality (industries that typically need more workers in the afternoon), offer a morning block of courses in which students can take all required courses.

Students with disabilities

Questions to Consider

  • How may students with disabilities be negatively impacted by the course schedule?
  • Do students with mobility limitations have enough time to get between courses?

Scheduling Needs

Evaluate the time and geographic distance between courses that are often taken together to determine if students with mobility limitations could realistically get between the courses within the given time.

For students with testing accommodations for extra time, ensure space is available for them to continue their test after the course has ended, either in the same classroom or a different room.

Low-income students

Questions to Consider

  • What types of services do low-income students rely on your institution for?
  • Can students readily access these services before and/or after their courses?

Scheduling Needs

Examine the types of services low-income students may rely on from your institution and ensure courses are scheduled at times where services will be available before and/or after class. Services may include tutoring, computer labs with technology and internet access, and accessible food (e.g., cafeterias, food pantries).

Students on federal financial aid

Questions to Consider

  • How many students rely on federal and/or state financial aid?
  • How many credits must students be enrolled in to maintain their eligibility for financial aid?

Scheduling Needs

Ensure students are able to access needed courses so they can maintain enough credits to remain eligible for financial aid.

previously incarcerated students

Questions to Consider

  • Does your institution serve a significant number of students formerly incarcerated?
  • Which local employers and industries will accept students with a record?

Scheduling Needs

Set formerly incarcerated students up for success by ensuring they’re able to access programs and courses that will lead to gainful employment.

Active military students

Questions to Consider

  • Does your institution serve a large population of students that are also active military members?
  • How long do actively military students typically stay on campus before they must leave for military responsibilities?

Scheduling Needs

Ensure military students can immediately access needed courses without waiting till the next academic term. Military students may be on-campus for a short amount of time between assignments and cannot wait until the next term to get into the courses they need to progress or complete their degree. Institutions may also consider offering accelerated courses to accommodate military students' shortened timelines.

While non-traditional students are particularly impacted by a course schedule that isn’t student-centric, institutions should also consider other groups of students that may be impacted by the course schedule.

First-year Students

Questions to Consider

  • What percentage of first-year students enroll in a full course load?
  • Which courses do first-year students have trouble accessing, possibly preventing them from taking a full course load?

Scheduling Needs

Examine first-year student course needs, such as general education or prerequisite courses, with a particular attention to courses that frequently experience bottlenecks. Ensure the schedule offers enough sections of high-demand, first-year courses so first-year students can enroll in a full schedule. Additionally, use other resources such as advisors and marketing campaigns to encourage students to enroll in a full course load.

Students in the adolescence age rage (i.e., 18-19 years old)

Questions to Consider

  • How many students on-campus are in the 18- to 19-year old age range?
  • What percentage of first and second-year courses are scheduled early in the morning?
  • Do early morning classes for first and second-year students see higher rates of absenteeism or lower rates of success?

Scheduling Needs

Evaluate historical course offerings to determine courses offered in the early morning that 18- to 19-year old students frequently enrolled in. Examine absenteeism and success rates in these courses to determine if courses should be considered for a later time slot to promote greater student success.

Students commuting home on the weekends

Questions to Consider

  • Does a large population of students commute home on the weekends? How far do students typically commute to go home?
  • When do students typically leave to commute home and return to campus?
  • Are there any specific days or times where there are high rates of absenteeism?
  • Is this absenteeism related to students commuting?

Scheduling Needs

Limit courses scheduled during times when students commute home. For example, if students typically commute home Friday afternoon and return Monday morning, limit course offerings during these times.

Transfer students

Questions to Consider

  • Does your institution have a large number of transfer students?
  • What percentage of transfer students complete their degree on-time once at your institution?

Scheduling Needs

Ensure transfer students are able to access the courses they need for completion, even if they follow a course sequence that diverges from students who complete their whole degree at your institution.

Gap year or study abroad students

Questions to Consider

  • How commonly do students take a gap year?
  • When are students most likely to take a gap year and when are they most likely to return?
  • How many students study abroad at your institution?
  • When are students most likely to study abroad?
  • Once students return from study abroad programs, are they able to access the courses they need for completion?

Scheduling Needs

Examine gap year and study abroad trends in your student population. Specifically, determine if gap year or study abroad students that deviate in the typical course sequence due to time off-campus are able to access needed courses when they return.

Student-athletes

Questions to Consider

  • Does your institution have a large population of student-athletes?
  • What time of day do student-athletes most often have practice?
  • When do student-athletes have competitions that may interfere with courses?
  • Do student-athletes on certain teams take a full load of courses at a lower rate than other students?
  • How might their practice schedule impact their ability to access courses they need?

Scheduling Needs

Ensure student-athletes are able to access needed courses during times that don’t conflict with practice schedules. Specifically, consider student-athletes in sports that historically have registered for fewer credits at higher rates.

Students in designated academic programs

Questions to Consider

  • Does your institution support programs of designated cohorts of students, such as honors programs or programs that otherwise put students in cohorts?
  • Do students in designated programs need to enroll in specially designated courses or a certain sequence of courses?

Scheduling Needs

Determine if any cohort-based programs require special scheduling considerations. Considerations may include following a certain sequence of courses, registering for courses with a certain designation (e.g., honors), or variable credits due to independent study or special projects.

Student-Centric Course Scheduling Best Practices

Institutions striving to create a student-centric schedule need to examine their scheduling processes from several angles to fully meet student needs. On the back end, institutions need to build rules and policies into the scheduling process that prioritize student needs first. To help understand student demand, institutions should leverage data to determine the types of courses and number of sections they need to offer. Additionally, institutions should solicit and track student feedback to understand student preferences and external factors that influence their ability to access courses. These three approaches will help institutions form a holistic approach to creating a student-centric schedule.

1. Create and Enforce Scheduling Rules & Policies

Creating and enforcing scheduling practices that prioritize student needs represents half the battle when it comes to creating a student-centric schedule. The following four practices help institutions design scheduling practices that not only help students, but also help institutions most effectively maximize their resources.

Adhere to Standard Meeting Patterns

Create standard meeting patterns that require courses to be offered during pre-determined time slots, rather than letting each academic unit choose course start and end times. Irregular meeting patterns often result In overlapping start and end times that force students to choose between courses to enroll in due to the time conflicts.

Standard meeting patterns also allow institutions to more efficiently schedule courses and maximize instructor and space resources. For example, institutions can ensure rooms aren't vacant for extended periods of time due to inconsistent start and end times. The maximized use of space allows institutions to offer more courses to meet student demand.

Implement & Advertise Scheduling Blocks

Implement scheduling blocks to ensure students will be able to take all their necessary courses within a given time window. Scheduling blocks offer courses students need during a certain time window, such as between 9am-12pm or 11am-2pm. This practice is particularly useful for campuses with large populations of commuter students and students that hold off-campus jobs. For example, commuter students with a job In the afternoon may need to take all their classes between 9am-12pm. Students with children may need to finish all their classes before 2pm to pick up their children from school In time. Advertise these scheduling blocks to encourage students to register for a full load and stay on track for completion.

Allocate Sections or Seats for High-Demand Courses

Designate a certain number of sections or seats for a course for students that need to take the course, but would otherwise be unable to access the course. For example, allocate a predetermined number of seats in an MBA course for students outside of the MBA program that need to take the course (e.g., MS, PhD students). For high-demand courses that first- and second-year students may get shut out of due to later registration windows, consider allocating a set number of sections or seats for first- and second-year students so they can access the course.

Create & Enforce Rules that Protect Against Course Conflicts

Ensure co-requisite and pre-requisite courses aren't offered at the same time by creating scheduling rules that don’t allow them to be offered during the same time slot. Work with academic units to identify courses that shouldn't conflict, particularly courses that may be offered by a unit outside of a student's home academic unit

2. Leverage Data and Technology to Track Demand & Eliminate Errors

Historically, implementing scheduling practices that lead to a student-centric schedule has been a challenge. Between manually coordinating schedules for multiple academic units, entering thousands of data points into the schedule, and checking for errors, administrators are left little time to focus on student-centric improvements. However, this is not the case anymore. New technology solutions and methods of accessing data make it possible for administrators to build a data-informed, student-centric schedule.

“Our tools haven't historically made interdepartmental collaboration easy and that's where there is great opportunity for us. We can ask for that data and use it. We can look at scheduling conflicts. This requires smarter systems and algorithms though. But we now have the technology and resources to throw at this situation to make it manageable." - Dr. Jessie Muehlberg, Associate Registrar, Curriculum Management, and Scheduling at Stanford University

Use Data to Understand Students’ Scheduling Needs

Historical enrollment data and current enrollment data can help administrators determine the correct mix of course offerings to satisfy student needs. The following metrics help administrators determine if they are offering the correct courses, at the right time, and in the right modality.

Adopt and Integrated Scheduling Solution

Institutions can move towards a more efficient, student-centric scheduling process by using a scheduling solution that eliminates the need for multiple spreadsheets, emails, and meetings to create a schedule. An integrated system ensures that all scheduling information lives in one place, eliminating the need for manual, duplicative data entry that often results in errors. An integrated scheduling solution also helps institutions with the following:

3. Track Student Preferences to Understand Student Scheduling Needs

Create a Central Place to Track Student Scheduling Requests

Create a central location where deans, advisors, and others that interact with students can track student scheduling requests that currently aren't being met. The tracking mechanism provides transparency into student needs that aren't being met and helps make the case for courses or sections that need to be added.

Survey Students About Their Course Scheduling Preferences

Solicit student feedback on course scheduling preferences to create a more student-centric schedule. However, administrators should be wary of over surveying students, especially with the increase in student surveys during the pandemic. Institutions may consider adding scheduling preference questions to other, related, surveys to guard against student survey fatigue. For example, an institution may include questions about course scheduling preferences in an advising survey. Depending on your population of students, consider asking questions in the following areas. Additionally, make sure to collect demographic data in the survey to better understand how different groups of students are impacted by course offerings.

Student Demographics - Enrollment Status
- Campus Location
- Education goal (e.g., transfer, complete program)
Institutional Barriers - Course full
- Course not offered
- Bad time
- Class Scheduled at same time
Personal Barriers - Childcare
- Finances
- Transportation
- Work
Modality preferences - In-person
- Hybrid
- Synchronous, online
- Asynchronous, online
Time of Day Preferences - Morning
- Afternoons
- Evenings
- During lunch
Day of Week Preferences - NIghts, weekends
- Mon/Weds
- Tues/Thurs
- Mon/Weds/Fri

1 Class Scheduling (aka Timetabling) Practices and Technology, AACRAO, September 2016
2 Data, Cognitive Science, and Bespoke Education, Dr. Tristan Denley, April 2019
3 2019 National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report, Rualo Noel Levitz, 2019
4 15 to Finish, Complete College America
5 Students Who take 15 Credits in First Semester More Likely to Graduate, Save Money on Degree, Community College Research Center, June 2016

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