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Business Officer Magazine
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Enrollment Model Means Ongoing Monitoring

Enrollment efficiencies are the main reason for the high productivity of Harrisburg Area Community College's Virtual Campus, the distance learning program at the Pennsylvania-based institution.

By Larry Adams

Enrollment efficiencies are the main reason for the high productivity of Harrisburg Area Community College's Virtual Campus, the distance learning program at our Pennsylvania-based institution. Launched on July 1, 2005, HACC's online program serves more than 5,000 students per semester seeking credit and noncredit workforce development courses. (For more information on the college's online learning program and why it's working so effectively, read "Virtual Campus Drives Revenue and Retention" in the Business Briefs department of the August 2009 issue of Business Officer.)

How do we know what courses and how many sections of each we should offer to ensure near-maximum enrollment numbers? In the end, it's a mixture of science and art.

Start With a Strong Curriculum

The college has offered online courses since the late ’90s when we started a modest virtual program. We developed the original list of targeted online courses after surveying existing students for interest and by compiling lists of the most popular degree programs and the highest enrolled courses at the college. Those courses with the greatest student interest and widest use for degree programs continue to be the focus for development into online offerings.

Faculty must first approve any course in their particular discipline that is designated for possible online development. This helps ensure both quality of the courses and buy-in from faculty and advisers. We currently offer more than 130 credit courses, with nearly 400 sections available each semester. While most of the courses are in the area of general education and they meet core curriculum degree requirements, an increasing number are in more specialized areas, such as foreign languages (Spanish and French), gerontology, dental hygiene, nursing, viticulture, enology, and so forth. Generally, only the introductory courses, typically lecture based, are developed in these specialized degree areas.

By far, the most popular courses continue to be in the core curriculum areas, such as English composition, literature, psychology, biology, economics, history, business, mathematics, humanities, sociology, and various aspects of information technology. Faculty develop a few new courses each year, but by now most courses deemed appropriate for online delivery are part of the virtual curriculum. Since the initial offerings in 1999, we’ve dropped fewer than 10 courses, most for curriculum-related reasons rather than low student demand.

Comprehensive Comparisons

To determine the course selection and number of sections offered in a particular semester, we create a demand model for each course. The model has three components, including:

1. Historical data, which tracks the number of sections offered each semester during the past five years. We examine data to find any trends related to student demand as measured by increases in both the number of sections per semester and average enrollments in the sections. We track this information for every course.

2. A waiting list, which documents how many people are in the queue for each overbooked course and at what date and time each student added his or her name to the list. Once we open a new section, all students receive e-mails and text messages with the new section number and a link to the college's online registration Web page. Data show that slightly more than 50 percent of students on a waiting list actually enroll, since some find alternatives while waiting. In areas where we expect high demand, we create “pending” sections within the schedule. Faculty agree in advance to staff the new sections so that there is no delay in finding a faculty member before a new section is opened. This helps ensure maximum enrollment, since new sections are added only when existing sections are nearly full and further demand is clearly indicated.

3. The daily enrollment pattern, which indicates how quickly the sections fill up. If we are offering three sections and two of them are filled within a day or two, we consider whether to add sections to that course offering. All this information is tracked in a spreadsheet that allows us to make quick comparisons and move quickly on adjustments to the scheduled courses. Enrollment numbers are fed automatically each day from the college's student information system. Spreadsheets for fall 2008 and fall 2009 (see Figure 1 and Figure 2) illustrate the daily enrollment tracking from a historical view and the current “live” situation. A rapid drop in available seats is an indication of high student demand during the enrollment period. On the first day of class (as denoted by the solid vertical line toward the right side of the figure), classes that have no available seats in any section are an indication of unmet need and likely targets for additional sections in future years.

In addition to the mathematical modeling, we go beyond the spreadsheets to consider what other factors might be affecting enrollment. We consider this effort the question mark or human factor, making it both art and science. For example, if a course's enrollment spikes, it could be that the college has added a new program or class that requires Psychology 101 as a prerequisite. But, there may not be that clear a connection, so sometimes we simply have to go by other information that is not quantifiable.

Stay Loose

Flexibility is one of the keys to the effectiveness of the Virtual Campus. We start monitoring enrollment numbers as soon as registration opens. We review enrollment data every day, which helps us decide whether to open more sections or perhaps shut down certain sections that don't appear to be filling up. We can expand or contract on a daily basis. Our budget goal is based on reaching 85 percent of our projected enrollment numbers for the Virtual Campus. Anything more than that generates excess revenue. Since we have averaged well over 90 percent in recent years, we've been able to transfer $5 million to $6 million per year to our other five campuses.

Courses That Keep Attracting

Feedback helps define online curriculum changes and keep courses relevant and popular. When courses are completed, every student evaluates the instructor and the course using a slightly modified version of the college’s standard course evaluation form. We ask students about overall course satisfaction, responsiveness of the instructor, clarity of the materials, and so forth.

We employ several other methods to gather information, including:

  • Student surveys. We conduct an Online Student Survey to assess how students learned about the Virtual Campus, learn why they are taking online courses, evaluate their experience with technical and support staff help, and learn what new courses and services they would like to see offered. In spring 2009, we even targeted students living in remote areas of the state for more detailed feedback about their experiences and motivations, which are often different from students living within 30 miles of a physical campus.
  • Grade-distribution studies. We conduct studies to evaluate student outcomes, comparing for each course the performance in online sections and face-to-face sections. Three separate studies have shown no significant overall differences in grade distributions.
  • Systematic rating of all courses. We rate and review all new courses and sections while they are being developed as part of the Online Academy, the college's required training program. For existing courses, we conduct a review every five years to help ensure continued excellence. Go to www.hacc.edu/VirtualCampus/ProspectiveFaculty/OnlineAcademy/index.cfm and follow the link to the Virtual Campus Course Assessment Rubric, the standards of which all new courses must meet before being offered. See also the detailed description with examples of the ways in which each standard can be rated as “baseline,” “notable,” or “exemplary.” All assessed sections must have a minimum rating of “baseline” before we consider offering them online. This applies to both existing sections and those under development.

The six standards of the rubric can be summarized as follows:

Standard 1: Achievement of course outcomes and learning objectives. Learning objectives and course outcomes are clearly explained and are addressed in content resources, explored in assignments, and measured through assessments.

Standard 2: Assessment. Appropriate assessments of student learning are provided.

Standard 3: Academic quality. The course has comparable rigor, depth, breadth, content, currency, coverage, and completeness as the same or similar courses taught traditionally and/or online.

Standard 4: Usability. The course is user-friendly. Students can easily find and use all course components.

Standard 5: Interactivity. Engagement, interaction, and motivation are developed and maintained.

Standard 6: Communication of expectations. Course documents clearly indicate what student and instructor expect of each other.

The decision to add or drop specific courses from the online schedule is largely student-driven. Once approved by faculty and developed for online delivery, courses are added to the schedule and enrollments closely monitored. We target courses for online delivery based primarily upon demand for face-to-face sections (most highly enrolled) and the number of programs in which the courses can be used. After a course has been in the online curriculum for two semesters, we decide about future scheduling using the enrollment management model described here.

During the past three years, we have dropped fewer than five courses because of low student demand. In those cases, the decision was mainly a matter of the courses having become electives rather continuing to be required for particular programs.

Meanwhile, despite the economic downturn, anticipated enrollment for the fall semester remains strong, and enrollment management will continue to drive the efficiencies that allow the Virtual Campus to contribute so much to the college.

LARRY ADAMS is campus vice president, Harrisburg Area Community College, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.