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Business Officer Magazine

A Stitch in Time

By shortening its summer session week from six days to four, Central Piedmont Community College trimmed its operating expenses-but actually increased enrollment and total class offerings.

By Michael Moss

*Significant funding cuts were the impetus for Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) to experiment with a four-day, 40-hour-per-week schedule for the 12-week 2009 summer semester. This initiative was a major change in the Charlotte, North Carolina-based college's approach to instruction and general college operations during the time frame of mid-May to early August. Typically, we offered classes Monday through Saturday, with most campus staff scheduled to work 40 hours per week Monday through Friday.

The actual outcomes included no reduction in the number of course offerings; a significant increase in full-time equivalency earned for the term; and more efficient use of facilities, with documented savings in physical operations. Because of the effectiveness of this strategy, we continued it for the summer 2010 semester and plan to move forward with the same plan in 2011.

Catalyst for a New Concept

With six campuses serving more than 75,000 individuals during an academic year, CPCC is the largest of the 58 community colleges within the North Carolina Community College System. The college receives approximately 73 percent of its annual operational funding from state and local governments. Introduction of the concept and initial design of the summer schedule experiment began with the president and his cabinet in January 2009, as a response to a 2.1 percent cut in the county budget for FY09, followed by a 10 percent reduction in the FY10 budget allocation for the college. The result of these cuts was a $2.5 million reduction in facilities operating funds over the two fiscal years. (The general building maintenance and facility operations budget accounts for approximately 20.2 percent of the college's overall operational budget.)

Obviously, significant resources are necessary to maintain a college that operates six campuses throughout its countywide service area. CPCC had already undertaken several cost-containment initiatives prior to the FY09 and FY10 budget reductions, and now we constantly review ways to reduce overhead costs while maintaining the integrity of the learning process.

Earlier efforts to trim costs included:

  • Greening of our information technology systems. This led to more effective power management of more than 5,500 computers in our labs and offices.
  • Conducting a staff awareness campaign. An orchestrated communication plan reminded employees to turn off lights and other equipment while not in use.
  • Negotiating energy savings contracts. A number of energy-efficient capital improvements are projected to result in significant savings over a 12-year period. We've already documented savings resulting from 12 percent less use in kilowatt hours per square foot than that used in the base year of 2007, and 20 percent less in kilowatt hours used per full-time equivalent student (FTE).

Our goal has always been to emphasize cost savings that would have the least adverse impact on students. We kept this in mind as the concept of the four-day instructional and workweek evolved as a pilot project for the 2009 12-week summer term.

A Systematic Strategy

The college leadership strategically approached the shortened instructional week in these ways:

  • Systematically reviewing course schedule requirements. Our instructional unit began course-by-course reviews to determine how best to meet student needs, while reducing the total time our facilities would be open and in use. An important concern was any possible negative impact on students caused by a move from a six-day-per-week class schedule to a Monday-through-Thursday schedule.
  • Evaluating the expected consequences of a reduced schedule. To adjust operating hours to four 10-hour days at CPCC, the first task was to review scheduled summer course offerings at all six campuses. The involvement and commitment of the learning unit—through participation of the vice president of learning, campus deans, and division directors—was critical to the success of the program and to the effective realignment of courses to the four-day-per-week schedule.

Table 1 summarizes and compares the class offerings in the summers of 2008, 2009, and 2010. Because of the struggling economy, overall demand for classes was high, and we experienced increases in enrollment even though our operating hours were reduced.

Classroom facilities were scheduled in ways that maximized the number of classes that we could offer between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. during the four open days. As the table shows, on-campus classes increased by 7 percent and 11 percent respectively during the summer sessions of 2008 and 2009, while total seats offered increased by approximately 14 percent in each of those summers.

Internet classes increased slightly (from 42 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2010) as a percentage of total online and on-campus classes. However, the number of sessions increased 49 percent, from 278 in 2008 to 415 in 2010.

  • Evaluating the physical impact of closed facilities. We knew that faculty, students, staff, community partners, and the general public would be taken by surprise by such a switch from normal operating hours throughout the year to the shortened schedule during the 12-week period in which campuses would be open four days and closed three days. We developed and distributed internal publications to alert students, faculty, and staff about the switch to a four-day operating schedule (with some limited exceptions).We placed informational signage at all facilities entrances during the 12-week summer session, informing potential visitors of the planned building and campus closures. The publications along with building signage were effective in alerting the public to the changes. Security personnel were available to answer questions for individuals who arrived at a campus on a day we were closed. Fortunately, security officers needed to field only a few questions at the beginning of the reduced operating schedule.
  • Establishing exceptions. After extensive review of course requirements and service needs, we concluded that each campus was likely to have facilities that should be exempt from the four-day schedule. We limited such exceptions to buildings or departments with a proven need based on prior commitments. These included such facilities as theatrical performance venues with previously scheduled events, labs necessary to support course requirements of certain technical and vocational programs, or centralized security dispatch offices that provided monitoring for all six campuses.
  • Calculating potential cost savings of facilities closings. In late February 2009, the facilities operations department developed the data in Table 2, reflecting the first estimate of potential savings (ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent of the costs to support the traditional six-day-per-week schedule). The department staff based its estimates on the decision that approximately 2.65 million square feet of the college's 2.9 million square feet would be closed from 11 p.m. each Thursday until 6 a.m. the following Monday from May 17, 2009, through Aug. 2, 2009.

As part of its calculations, the department factored in renegotiated and adjusted contracts for security and housekeeping services to reflect the reduced level of operations and, hence, lower costs. The associate vice president for facilities, the executive director of facilities, and the director of security led those contract negotiations. The cooperation and support of the companies providing housekeeping and security services was a key element in the success of the project, as was the flexibility and language in the original contract agreement that allowed for service-level adjustments.

Despite the uncertainty of final budget numbers (which estimated savings ranging from $59,398 to $168,185), CPCC did make an early decision to implement the four-day schedule. This early planning was critical to the success of the initiative and the college's ability to negotiate reduced services and costs with our vendors.

It's a Go

In early March 2009, Tony Zeiss, CPCC's president, and Kathy Drumm, executive vice president, presented the proposal to the board of trustees for discussion, and the board decided to implement the compressed summer schedule. The college would offer classes four days a week (with minimal exceptions) Monday through Thursday, with classrooms opening as early as 6:30 a.m. and closing at 10:00 p.m. For college support staff, we adopted as standard hours of operation 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Administrative staff worked 10-hour days, four days a week, to maintain a 40-hour schedule.

Supervisors notified their employees of the decision and began arranging new schedules for the May 17 start date. We encouraged supervisors to be flexible with staff who needed time to reschedule personal responsibilities to align with the adjusted summer hours. Minimal adjustments for faculty were required in response to the four-day operation; CPCC faculty are on a 10-month contract running from August 1 to May 31, and summer courses are taught on a per-course contract. Therefore, the only change in the summer term is that faculty had no scheduled office hours. Normally, office hours would be scheduled for a minimum of 10 hours per week and distributed Monday through Friday.

Planned Benefits and More

Actual savings from the pilot project were approximately $111,000-which was close to our "most likely" scenario estimate of $118,499. See Table 3 for 2009 and 2010 cost savings. (Note that the 2010 numbers reflect the college's executive management decision to shorten the compressed schedule to nine weeks to accommodate additional student services needs—mainly registration and counseling—prior to the beginning of the 2010 fall term. We've adopted the same schedule for the 2011 summer session.) But, there were other benefits as well.

  • The extended office hours during the four days made services available and even more convenient for the evening students.
  • An unmeasured benefit and cost savings was the fuel saved by our approximately 1,000 employees as a result of the 20 percent reduction in commuting.
  • Perhaps the greatest benefit was increasing the public's understanding that funding reductions to community colleges do have noticeable and significant consequences. The adjusted schedule was a tangible, visible result of budget cuts and a reminder that we cannot continue business as usual during these severe economic times.

As noted earlier, summer enrollments were not adversely affected. In fact, CPCC realized 21 percent FTE enrollment growth for summer 2009 as compared to summer 2008. In addition, both students and staff expressed an overwhelmingly positive response to the schedule.

Because of the effectiveness of the pilot project, we continued the four-day class schedule in summer 2010, and we plan to retain the same schedule for this summer. The alternative summer schedule has served the college well during challenging budget times. While not yet a permanent adjustment, this may be a change that will remain in place for several more years.

MICHAEL MOSS is vice president of finance and administrative services, Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, North Carolina.