5 ways to make course scheduling more equitable (opinion)

April 3, 2024
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Faculty members may prefer to teach during the day, but a large department in particular should have professors who are available for evening courses.

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A friend recently returned to college in his 40s, two decades after stopping out with about 100 credits. He just had to bang out a few more classes and complete a major. His plan was to take classes part time when his daytime work schedule and newborn child permitted.

He worked with the enrollment management and advising staff, got reinstated as a matriculated student, and built momentum as he prepared to turn his aspiration into reality. His plan was to major in economics. And then he ran right into that department’s course scheduling practices.

There simply were not enough courses offered in the evening for him to register for what he needed. He pivoted to another major, where he is doing quite well. Given what I do for a living, I couldn’t help myself but look at the Economics department’s course schedule. It was a dismaying display of indifference to students’ needs.

The details only make the story worse. This was a large department offering plenty of courses. Moreover, some courses had multiple sections that were all scheduled in the morning or afternoon. They could easily have spared an evening option. And the institution has long emphasized diversity, equity and inclusion.

This is not an isolated case. I’ve observed institution types including public flagships and community colleges where this is happening. This type of daytime-heavy course scheduling is most often lamented because it results in inefficient utilization of classrooms. But equitable course availability is another casualty.

Here are five actions to help make course scheduling more equitable, particularly for students in need of classes that don’t meet during the day, whether they are first-time collegians or learners returning from a hiatus—the latter being a group many institutions hope to serve as they strive to ward off enrollment declines.

  1. Focus on uptake rather than offerings.

When we think of what a university is, we often think of it6 in terms of its offerings. That’s misleading—it is really defined by uptake. We need to focus on this and on the factors that cause gaps between what is said to be available and what students access. The course schedule is often a prominent driver of this gap. It’s also one of the most changeable.

It’s time to start measuring how equitable course schedules are and then take action. Until then, there will be some false advertising going on. In my friend’s case, his institution proudly broadcasts that it offers an economics major. To him, it does not.

  1. Define equity in course scheduling.

Achieving equity among students with varying nonschool obligations first requires defining the concept. There are some subjective aspects of course schedule equity that institutions need to establish consensus on. But that’s often the case with equity and no reason to avoid the topic.

The first aspect is how to define equity. Is the goal:

  • equity among students regardless of their outside obligations—that is, that all students have access to the same, or quite similar, courses?
  • the availability of some level of choice in required and elective courses?
  • just the ability to get the credits in the right buckets (general education, required major courses, electives) to graduate in a certain time period, however middling the course selection is?

One approach would be to tier these criteria, with being able to progress toward degree the minimal standard—and one that, in the example above, the Econ department failed to satisfy.

The second question is whether asynchronous online courses offer the same experience as a synchronous online or face-to-face course. If a student with a more flexible schedule has the choice of a synch and asynch section of a given course but the student with a job and kid has to involuntarily go the asynchronous online route, do we count that as equitable? That’s a philosophical question and I’m not claiming there is no such thing as a good asynchronous course, but it would seem hard to demonstrate that separate is equal here.

Rating departments and universities on course schedule equity should account for variation in schedules across semesters. For example, if a given elective is offered during the day some semesters but during the evenings at other times, that isn’t necessarily inequitable.

  1. Fight the right battles.

Large universities need to balance the needs of a great many students. Many of those students prefer daytime hours and there are some students for whom nighttime is when they work or provide care. It’s not beyond the pale that there’s some bias toward the morning and afternoon. Rather than try to ding institutions for smaller discrepancies, let’s focus on the most egregious cases where the quantity and type of courses are significantly skewed.

It is probably also most productive to focus on large departments and not the small fries that are facing existential threats from low enrollment.

  1. Consider implementation challenges.

Some universities have long had rules stipulating that departments must schedule a certain percentage of their courses outside prime weekday hours. That is good but does not guarantee that the right number or types of courses will be offered at all times. Exemptions to these rules further attenuate their impact.

Another concern may be faculty availability. As someone who has worked in course scheduling for a while, and who also is involved with the topic of work-family balance, I’d say two things. Some faculty have time constraints that are eminently legitimate. But, in the aggregate, for a large department to cite faculty availability as the rationale for a course schedule that drives an inequitable student experience? No.

  1. Recognize this good news: Quick action is an option.

Once institutional leaders establish consensus on the factors above, they can devise a scorecard for departments, and for course schedules globally, and start identifying where the problems lie. At most institutions, it’s too late to change the Fall 2024 schedule much. But Spring 2025 will be here soon enough.

Chris Morett is president of Co|Here Campus and Workplace, a higher education consultancy focusing on space and technology planning and activation. He has taught at several universities and served as an administrator helping to plan and manage campus spaces.



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