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The Learning MarketSpace, October 2013

A semi-annual electronic newsletter of the National Center for Academic Transformation examining issues related to the development and implementation of redesigned learning environments. 






Offering perspectives on issues and developments at the nexus of higher education and information


In the October 2012 issue of The Learning MarketSpace, NCAT announced that this newsletter would undergo a substantial change in its content and format to reflect NCAT’s new direction. NCAT is making a transition from a focus on conducting redesign programs and public events to concentrating on analysis and change strategies based on the data we have collected and the experiences we have had over the past 13 years. The following article came to fruition following a solicitation from the White House asking NCAT for ideas in addition to course redesign about how higher education productivity could be increased. Among the options: redesign the department, redesign the curriculum, redesign academic support and student services, and redesign the administration.

Sixteen years ago, I wrote, “A major problem that continues to confront higher education is that of rising costs. With the average cost of attendance consuming a substantial portion of the median family income, for many Americans what is at stake is nothing less than the continued viability of the American dream. The stakes are high for higher education as well. Caught in a closing vise between new demands for enrollment and declining rates of revenue growth, colleges and universities must figure out a way to do more with less.

Recognizing that tuition increases can no longer be used as a safety valve to avoid dealing with the underlying issues of why costs increase so much, campuses have begun the hard work of cost containment. But after sharpening priorities, sometimes making tough choices in light of those priorities, and asking everyone—administrators and faculty alike—to work harder, campuses are still groping for ways to wrestle costs under control.

At the same time, colleges and universities are discovering exciting new ways of using technology. For most institutions, however, new technologies represent a black hole of additional expense as students, parents, and faculty alike demand access to each new generation of equipment and software. Most campuses have bolted on new technologies to a fixed plant, a fixed faculty, and a fixed notion of classroom instruction. Under these circumstances, technology becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution of cost containment. By and large, colleges and universities have not yet begun to grab hold of technology's promise to reduce costs.

Containing costs—and making use of new technologies to help contain costs—requires a fundamental shift in thinking. It requires one to challenge the fundamental assumption of the current instructional model: that faculty members meeting with groups of students at regularly scheduled times and places is the only way to achieve effective student learning.”

These words are more true today than they were 16 years ago.

NCAT’s Course Redesign Methodology

NCAT has conclusively demonstrated that large-scale course redesign can improve the quality of student learning while reducing instructional costs. Since 1999, NCAT has worked with more than 150 institutions to redesign about 200 courses. Courses have been redesigned in all academic areas at private and public research universities, four-year colleges and community colleges. Overall, student learning improved in 72 percent of the redesigns; 28 percent showed learning equivalent to traditional formats. On average, the cost-per-student declined by 34 percent with a range of 4 to 81 percent.  Other outcomes include increased course-completion rates, improved retention, better student attitudes toward the subject and increased student and faculty satisfaction with the mode of instruction.

While most redesigns have focused on introductory courses for strategic reasons, both advanced-level and graduate-level courses have also been redesigned. Lowering costs in large-enrollment, introductory courses that enroll significant student numbers can generate substantial cost savings. Why? Undergraduate enrollments in the United States concentrate in only a few academic areas. In fact, just 25 courses generate about 50 percent of student enrollment at the community-college level and about 35 percent of enrollment at the baccalaureate level. The insight that these figures point to is simple and compelling: To have a significant impact on large numbers of students, an institution should concentrate on redesigning the 25 courses in which most students are enrolled instead of putting a lot of energy into technology investments in disparate small-enrollment courses. By making improvements in a restricted number of large-enrollment courses, a college or university can literally affect every student who attends.

Course redesign frequently focuses on “bottleneck” courses where capacity limitations deny students the opportunity to proceed toward graduation in a timely way and on courses that produce an unusually large number of failures. Both situations add cost to the system and delay progress toward the degree. Such delays may induce the student to take extra courses to maintain full-time status and thus financial-aid eligibility. Delays also increase the chance that students will drop out, which hurts completion rates and increases the average cost for students who do get the degree.

Course redesign is the process of redesigning whole courses (rather than individual classes or sections) to achieve better learning outcomes at a lower cost by leveraging the capabilities of information technology. Course redesign is not just about putting courses online. It is about rethinking the way instruction is delivered given the possibilities that technology offers.

But course redesign is about more than using technology. NCAT’s course redesign methodology requires institutions to engage in an intensive analytical and planning process, comparing the “before” activities (the traditional way of doing things) and the “after” activities (the redesigned way of doings things). Traditional instructional formats require individual faculty members to carry out all of the development and delivery aspects of a course on their own. Course redesign requires institutional teams to complete a cost/benefit analysis to determine the right type of personnel or technological application for each instructional task, eliminating duplication and redundancy in the process. Course redesign involves substituting technology for much of that effort and substituting different kinds of personnel for certain tasks typically performed by faculty such as:

  • interactive tutorial software for face-to-face class meetings;
  • automated grading for hand grading;
  • course management software for human monitoring of student performance and course administration;
  • student interaction with other kinds of personnel for direct student/faculty interaction; and,
  • coordinated development and delivery of the whole course and shared instructional tasks for individual development and delivery of each individual course section.

Making such substitutions allows instructors to teach more students without increasing their workloads, thus increasing productivity and lowering the cost of instruction.

In 2005, Dennis Jones, president of NCHEMS and Carol Twigg, president of NCAT, calculated what the impact on higher education would be if all U.S. colleges and universities adopted NCAT’s methods to redesign their top 25 courses. The cost of instruction would decrease by approximately 16 percent annually, and student learning and retention would improve. (See for the original calculations.) Annual dollar savings were estimated to be about $10 billion, and that estimate was based on 2003 data. Since 2005, NCAT has also shown that its course redesign methodology can be applied to courses well beyond the top 25; thus, the 16 percent cost reduction estimate is a conservative one. As Senator Everett Dirksen once observed about the federal budget, “A billion here, a billion there, and first thing you know you’re talking about real money.”

Applying NCAT’s Redesign Methodology to Other Institutional Areas

While NCAT has focused on redesigning individual courses, the same redesign principles can apply to all areas of the institution. Applying NCAT’s redesign methodology to other institutional areas—both academic and non-academic—requires institutions to engage in a similar analytical and planning process, comparing the before activities (the traditional way of doing things) and the after activities (the redesigned ways of doings things). That process allows institutions to consider changes in specific tasks, make decisions about how to use technology (or not) for specific tasks, visualize duplicative or unnecessary effort and complete a cost/benefit analysis regarding the right type of personnel for each task. As in course redesign, making similar substitutions of personnel and technology in both academic and non-academic areas of the institution allows an institution to serve the same number of students on a lower resource base or more students on the same resource base, thus increasing productivity and lowering institutional costs.

Many of the ideas discussed below have been around for a while, yet very few institutions have implemented them. Some of them focus on analysis and planning and use technology to support that process, while others involve more direct substitutions of technology. Our purpose here is to demonstrate that the analytical principles of course redesign can be successfully applied well beyond a single course.

Redesign the Department

NCAT has always asked institutions to begin by redesigning one course to serve as a concrete example of how to put NCAT’s methodology into practice. The impact of redesign becomes more powerful when applied to the whole department. The same redesign principles that have been applied to individual courses can easily be applied to whole departments or programs. The key is to analyze the way each course is designed and delivered within a departmental context, eliminating duplication and redundancy, and make appropriate substitutions of technology and personnel. Here are three examples:

Re-direct Resources from Introductory Courses to Offer Additional Courses

Frequently, the amount of departmental resources devoted to introductory-level courses is disproportionate to the resources available for all courses. As an example, the University of Southern Maine’s psychology department comprised nine full-time faculty members at the time of their initial redesign. Of those nine, 2.17 FTE (24 percent) were devoted to teaching the one-semester, introductory psychology course. By increasing the number of students per section in the introductory course from 75 to 125, the university was able to free up instructor time to develop additional courses to serve additional students. At Fairfield University, the introductory-level biology courses were consuming faculty resources and constraining the range and number of upper-level courses the university could offer. The redesign combined seven sections taught annually to four, which freed three instructors to offer other courses and develop a new major. Student learning outcomes increased significantly in both redesigns, and both redesigns allowed the departments to serve more students on the same resource base while generating additional revenues for the universities.

Double the Number of Students and Courses Offered on the Same Resource Base

At the University of Mississippi, the mathematics department originally redesigned College Algebra and Elementary Statistics, by far the largest courses taught in the department.  Students in Tuesday-Thursday sections met in the classroom once a week and went to a computer lab for at least 1.25 hours each week at a time convenient for them. There they worked problems, practiced their skills and received immediate feedback. The redesign allowed the department to use resources much more efficiently. Since the sections that previously met twice a week now only met once a week, an instructor that previously taught one section could now teach two with the same classroom teaching time. In this way the department could teach students more effectively without increasing class size, while offering 12 fewer sections each year. Ole Miss went on to redesign subsequent courses—in essence, a full departmental redesign. Students in MWF sections met twice a week with the other hour occurring in the lab. The math department was then able to teach three sections using the teaching time of an instructor who would otherwise only be able to cover two sections. In this way, more students were able to work with the most effective teachers and class sizes were increased. Prior to the initial redesign in AY 2000-2001, the department offered only 13 courses annually, had 45 math majors and a Ph.D. program on probation.  After the departmental redesign was complete in AY 2006-2007, the math department was able to offer 28 courses annually, had 81 math majors and 20 Ph.D. students and a program no longer on probation. The department became more productive and the faculty more energized as a result.

Grow the Department and Overall Institutional Enrollment on the Same Resource Base

Cleveland State Community College (CSCC) in Tennessee initially redesigned its developmental math program (three courses) in 2006, impacting about 1,200 students. The redesign increased student learning and completion while decreasing the cost-per-student by 19 percent. After the developmental program redesign was complete, the math department used the same approach to redesign eight college-level math courses. Altogether, 95 percent of CSCC’s math offerings have been redesigned.  By March 2012, overall math enrollment had grown by 40 percent, and college-level math enrollment exceeded developmental math enrollment–-an unprecedented shift at CSCC. The overall cost-per-student in mathematics was reduced by 40 percent, and the number of students passing a math course increased by 60 percent. In addition, the overall enrollment at the college increased by 7 percent. CSCC’s president, Carl Hite, attributed this increase to the math department’s redesign since few other institutional changes occurred during this period.

Redesign the Curriculum

In an unpublished paper, “Modeling Instructional Productivity in Traditional Universities,” Bill Massy defines macro productivity-improvement approaches as those which “quantify how long it takes to get a degree and what can be done to streamline the process.” The most important factor, he says, is the curriculum. “Improving macro productivity often begins by asking how the number of credits required for the degree can be reduced. Other elements of curricular specification also may be addressed—e.g., the number of required courses and the range of permissible electives. Courses taken over and above requirements, in which students ‘consume’ interesting but non-essential extra credit hours, provide fruitful opportunities for reducing the time and cost of a degree.” What follows are three examples of macro productivity-improvement approaches.

Ferren and Slavings’ Curricular Efficiency Strategy

In 2000, Ann Ferren and Rick Slavings wrote an important monograph for the Association of American Colleges, Investing in Quality: Tools for Improving Curricular Efficiency. A study of any college or university curriculum will find many courses that are not essential to a major, many that are duplicative across disciplines, and many that are not a requirement or prerequisite for another program of study. At most institutions, the process through which curriculum is developed and scheduled frequently results in duplication, specialization, inflation of requirements, and many discretionary courses that need not be offered in order for students to complete degrees. The curriculum is usually developed one course at a time or a program at a time. What and when faculty want to teach does not always match student needs.

Furthermore, on most campuses, more courses are added each year than are removed from the curriculum. Even when a campus has a regulation on removing seldom-offered courses from the catalog, most registrars are uncomfortable enforcing it. College catalogs list thousands of courses, yet enrollment studies demonstrate that 70 to 80 percent of the course work taken by students is accounted for by about 30 percent of the courses available. The costs associated with this fragmented decision-making process and curricular variation are significant.

A fundamental approach to increasing the efficiency of the curriculum without sacrificing quality is to manage the curriculum so that course offerings match student needs for successful movement through the program. To do so requires attention to sequencing, scheduling, and frequency of offerings. Managing and restricting the curriculum can redistribute students where there is capacity in the curriculum. Here are some examples:

  • Reduce the number of under-enrolled course sections. Courses that serve fewer than ten students are often deemed to be under-enrolled. Courses with seats available enrolled at less than the limit set are also under-enrolled. When multiple sections of the same course are offered, several sections could be combined without exceeding the pedagogical limits established by faculty or curriculum committees. Although reducing the number of sections may provide less flexibility for scheduling among students, a class analysis would typically show that the under-enrolled sections were at less popular times (8:00 a.m.) or at times when another section of the same course is offered.
  • Reduce the number and frequency of discretionary and elective courses offered. Discretionary/elective courses are those that are not required for any program and do not serve as prerequisites for other courses. These courses are offered because of faculty interest or simply because they are still on the books long after the faculty who developed them are gone. They are a major reason why a list of course offerings often bears little resemblance to the degree requirements stated in catalog descriptions. Reducing the number of discretionary/elective courses would provide some limits on flexibility in scheduling for students, but redirected savings, increased availability of core courses, and more efficient progress toward graduation would save resources.

CSU’s “Get ‘em out” Strategy

A 2002 California State University (CSU) task force found that only one-third of students who had taken a full-course load (120 semester units or 180 quarter units) at the end of four years graduated in that time frame. "Most of the students who by all accounts should have graduated in four years instead stay on in the CSU taking courses for an extra year or two." Too often students took too many courses or switched majors midstream. Some simply failed to focus enough on getting through. "Traditionally, we have left it up to students to find their own way," said David Spence, then chief academic officer of the CSU system. "But when you are in a situation where you have to limit enrollments [because of funding constraints], the only way we can provide access is by graduating more students, at higher rates."  In fall 2002, the CSU Board of Trustees adopted a three-part initiative to improve the effectiveness and efficiency with which students earned the baccalaureate degree. The two overarching goals of the initiative were for institutions to graduate a higher proportion of students and for students to earn the degree while accruing fewer unneeded or unwanted courses.

In a 2005 report to the CSU Academic Senate, Spence summarized the actions being taking throughout the CSU system to reduce what some called “dawdling behavior” on the part of students. Measures included:

  • Reduce the number of required units in baccalaureate degree programs to 120 semester hours where possible.
  • Reduce the number of required general education units where possible.
  • Emphasize the importance of graduation in orientation sessions for new students and encourage students to highly value efficient progress toward the degree.
  • Strengthen support offered to students who seek help in clarifying life and career goals.
  • Require undergraduates to make an early choice of major.
  • Make strong use of clear roadmaps to the degree and ensure that the promises in them (e.g., avoiding “bottleneck” courses) are taken seriously.
  • Enforce policies that limit or discourage drops, withdrawals, grades of incomplete and policies that limits the number of course repetitions
  • Make frequent use of degree audits (no later than at 70 semester units) as a strong practice to spur students toward graduation.
  • Strongly encourage students who are very near or beyond the minimum units required for the degree to graduate.

The concept of limiting the “excess credits” that students unnecessarily accumulate has been instituted at all Texas public colleges and universities. Excess credit hours are those hours attempted by a resident undergraduate student that exceed by more than 30 hours the number of hours required for completion of the degree plan in which the student is enrolled. Since the State of Texas will not provide funds to state institutions of higher education for excess semester credit hours earned by a resident student, the college or university charges tuition at the non-resident rate to all students who exceed the semester credit hour limit of their program. Students now have a financial incentive not to “dawdle.”

Florida’s “Get ‘em in” Strategy

In the late 1960’s, the Florida Legislature created Florida's Statewide Course Numbering System (SCNS) to facilitate the transfer of credit for equivalent courses among the state's colleges and universities and to prevent unnecessary repetition of courses by transfer students. In the 1971 Articulation Agreement, the Legislature established the procedures for the transfer of courses among institutions that participate in the common course designation and numbering system. The system provides a database of post-secondary courses at all public institutions and some participating non-public institutions. The assigned common course numbers describe course content to facilitate the transfer of students. What is offered for credit at one institution is comparable at all other Florida public institutions. The goal is to educate students more efficiently on the same resource base. The SCNS is coordinated by the State Department of Education. Each of the public universities, community colleges, area technical education centers and the two participating private colleges have an SCNS designated contact person who coordinates course numbering matters. Currently, there are 164 subject matter areas, each with its own faculty discipline committee with one member designated as faculty discipline coordinator. For the universities, community colleges, area technical education centers and two private colleges, there are 100,000 plus courses on file. By standardizing course numbering and enforcing transfer policies throughout Florida’s public two- and four-year institutions, Florida has avoided the problem of “credit creep,” which is rampant throughout higher education.

Data from the CSU study described above illustrate the “credit creep” problem: among part-time students who should have graduated after six years, only 38 percent did so. At that time, some 55,000 community college students transferred to the CSU every year. Those who graduated from CSU universities did so with an average of 156 credit units, far above the 120 credits needed for most majors. At the time, each CSU campus had different requirements for degree programs, which meant that many transfer students took too many courses in community college or had to repeat the courses they had already taken when they got to the CSU. Today, common course numbering, standardized course requirements in academic disciplines and fixed transfer agreements allow students to complete a four-year degree in 60 credits, thus lowering the amount of time students must spend at the four-year institution and lowering the cost of educating them.

The Texas Common Course Numbering System (TCCNS) is a voluntary, cooperative effort among Texas community colleges and universities to facilitate transfer of freshman- and sophomore-level general academic coursework. To date, 110 institutions of higher learning in Texas participate in the TCCNS project. TCCNS provides a shared, uniform set of course designations for students and their advisors to use in determining both course equivalency and degree applicability of transfer credit on a statewide basis. When students transfer between two participating TCCNS institutions, a course taken at the sending institution transfers as the course carrying the same TCCNS designation at the receiving institution. We at NCAT ask, why isn’t every institution in Texas required to participate in this program?

Redesign Academic Support and Student Services

The Delta Cost Project has spent over a decade investigating the cost of higher education. During the period 2002–2006, educational spending dedicated to classroom instruction declined at all types of institutions, but spending on academic support, student services, administration and maintenance increased.  During this same period, spending per degree completion has remained steady at public colleges and universities.

Let’s focus on ways to redesign academic support and student services.

Consolidate Student Services (Admissions, Financial Aid, Advising, Records)

Today, most colleges and universities are members of statewide systems or of formal or informal consortia. Yet each institution duplicates its peers in offering services to students. The University of Maine System, for example, comprises 17 institutions–-each with its own admissions office, records office, financial aid office, and so on–-all engaged in the same activities. Within each system or consortia, student service offices are reviewing the same documents, enforcing the same rules and dispensing the same advice–-at a very high cost.

Reducing operating costs in higher education means reducing redundant activity. Consolidating student service offices within a system, a state or a consortium of colleges would eliminate such redundancies. As we have learned in course redesign, significant amounts of time and resources are devoted to each faculty member’s planning and executing each individual course–-with many of them duplicating the activities of others teaching sections of the same course. So too in the world of student services. Conducting a cost/benefit analysis of who does what in each office can lead to increased efficiencies.

An important part of that analysis is to differentiate among “processing” tasks, routine interactions with students and interactions with students that require professional advice. 

When Rio Salado College redesigned its Introductory Algebra course, it created a new position called a course assistant to troubleshoot technology questions, monitor student progress and alert instructors to student difficulties with the material. Rio found that approximately 90 percent of questions students asked were non-instructional in nature such as “when’s the homework due?” or “my password won’t work—can you fix it?” Adding the course assistant @ $12 per hour allowed Rio to increase the number of students that could be handled by one instructor from 30 to 100.

Similarly, a large majority of the questions students ask at student-service offices are simple to answer such as "how do I request a transcript" or "when is my bill due?"  These low-level questions can easily be answered by anyone with minimal training. Anything more complex can be transferred to a higher-level staff member who can counsel the student.

Why shouldn’t each higher education system or consortium (or even individual institutions) establish well-run call centers to handle many (or most) student-service functions? A call center can operate round-the-clock, letting students get their questions answered on their schedules, not the institution’s. Well-trained call center personnel can ensure that students and families never have to wait long to talk to a real person. Student-service staff at a call center can answer calls from students and parents from multiple colleges and universities. What happens if a new student can't make it to orientation? The call center staff member has the answer. She can reset e-mail passwords, rattle off how much students can borrow for each year of college, and let hopeful applicants know when to expect those admissions decisions. She can easily transfer callers with more complex questions to higher-level staff members.

Some would argue that it is important for students to be able to come in and talk with someone about their admissions status or a problem with their record. However, with the use of technology–-and a working telephone system–-students can get accurate information about their status or can resolve their issues without a face-to-face meeting. The majority of today’s students undoubtedly prefer this approach as long as the call center is well run.

With over 24,000 students at more than 150 worldwide locations, University of Maryland University College (UMUC) uses an online application process with advisors available to answer student questions via an 800 telephone number or email. UMUC also uses automated transcript evaluation services for those who seek to transfer. Advising services are also provided via chat, telephone and email. Webinars, available synchronously or asynchronously, have been developed for aspiring, new, transferring and current students to explain all aspects of available student services and to provide the information students need to be successful. One central location provides a place both to serve students around the world and also to enable personnel to report and to share ideas.

Eliminate the Physical Library

Libraries are costly, typically consuming two to four percent of institutional budgets. (Two to four percent may not seem like much, but two percent of Harvard’s $3.7 billion operating budget is $74 million.) Yet surveys of library usage have shown that only about five percent of students actually used the library in pre-Internet days.

In response to declining budgets, libraries have implemented a number of efficiencies and cost controls that include ceasing print journal subscriptions, bundled and consortial purchasing, outsourcing and sharing cataloging and reference services and staff reductions. The last 10 years have witnessed massive centralization of the university library with the goal of increasing efficiency while minimizing duplicate work.

This may sound like course redesign to you, and in some ways it is. But most institutions have also established links to a panoply of online services, which students may access from anywhere at any time on top of maintaining a physical collection and operating a physical plant. They have “bolted on” technology to the existing infrastructure.

Why does any college or university need a physical library in 2012?

There are a number of well-established, fully accredited colleges that do not have libraries and instead rely on access policies.

Created in 1971, SUNY Empire State College (ESC) never built a physical library. With more than 40 locations across the state of New York, ESC initially provides library access for its students via the SUNY Open Access Program. Empire State College students and employees have access to the libraries of SUNY's two and four-year colleges, and university centers. For those who live in New York City, a similar agreement is in place with the City University of New York (CUNY) library system. Today, Empire State College's online library provides access to reference services, search tools and full-text research resources (journals, e-books, multimedia, etc.) for student, faculty and staff use. With the expansion of distance learning, the library has developed an extensive collection of online journals, e-books and research databases, as well as services to help students and faculty locate print materials at nearby SUNY or other libraries.

Online library services and resources include:

  • day, evening and Sunday reference services via live chat, online form, phone and e-mail
  • live online library skills workshops that students can take from home
  • online tutorials, screencasts, Facebook and Twitter posts to provide help and search tips
  • 111,000+ full-text electronic books, 54,000+ full-text journals, 150+ research databases encompassing millions of full-text articles, reports, dissertations and other materials, 2,300+ reference e-books, 4.5 million+ searchable, digital works of art and photography and dozens of subject guides linking to the most relevant research tools, new publications and Web resources by discipline.

As noted above, University of Maryland University College (UMUC) has more than 150 locations around the world. UMUC’s library provides online services and resources similar to ESC’s. In addition, books can be delivered to students’ homes in the United States. UMUC also provides access to many military and other libraries near their international locations.

Outsource Academic Support

Outsourcing in higher education has long been recognized as a cost-effective way to manage non-academic services and functions. Colleges and universities need to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of outsourcing the various academic support functions on campus. For example, most institutions have tutoring centers but few, if any, measure whether or not they have any impact on student success; rather they count “users.” While in-house services are touted for their face-to-face support, frequently those helping lack sufficient training. In addition, in-house services are only open for limited hours, and at some institutions, students must wait for help as staffing is inadequate to meet demand.

Online tutoring services have grown in the last decade and are often less expensive and of higher quality than in-house services. For example, Smarthinking’s tutoring services are available 24/7; all tutors have a Master’s degree or a doctorate. Students may contact the tutors in real time, make an appointment for a convenient time or send a draft paper for evaluation, which is returned within 24 hours. Assistance is consistent and available on the student’s schedule rather than the institution’s.

When Tallahassee Community College (TCC) initially redesigned its English composition course, they expected to use their own on-campus, face-to-face writing center for tutoring. However after conducting a careful cost-benefit analysis, they decided that outsourcing their English comp tutoring to Smarthinking’s Online Writing Lab was a better option. The success of that initiative gave TCC faculty the impetus to petition for more funding to expand their use of Smarthinking. Today, Smarthinking is a vital component of TCC’s Learning Commons. TCC also offers Smarthinking’s online tutoring services to students in courses that are typically hard to staff by face-to-face tutors. Students taking courses in health education, chemistry, American history, freshman composition, psychology and physics, among others, have access to Smarthinking’s 24/7 online tutoring. Data collected by TCC shows that the more students access Smarthinking for assistance, the more successful they are in passing their courses.

Redesign the Administration

In 1990, Bill Massy and Bob Zemsky wrote a widely read article, “The Lattice and the Ratchet,” as part of a publication series, Policy Perspectives, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The lattice refers to the growth of the scale and scope of campus administration—in their inimitable words “an administrative lattice that has grown, much like a crystalline structure, to incorporate ever more elaborate and intricate linkages within itself.” Massy and Zemsky attributed the growth of the lattice to three principal causes:

  • The persistence of regulatory requirements and micromanagement from federal and state agencies, institutional boards and system offices, all requiring plans, reports and more personnel to write the plans and reports.
  • The embrace of “consensus management” (extending to administrative staff what had traditionally been a faculty consultative model) rather than top-down management, leading to the establishment of working groups and time spent negotiating among groups, all of which add to the lattice.
  • The expansion of “administrative entrepreneurism”: new administrative experts who define and own their jobs, often previously performed by faculty members (e.g., advising offices.)

According to a 2010 Policy Report from the Goldwater Institute, between 1993 and 2007, there was a 39.3 percent increase in expenditures per student for instruction, a 37.8 percent increase for expenditures in research and service, and a 14 percent increase in other spending. While these increases are large, they pale in comparison to the whopping 61.2 percent increase in expenditures per student for administration.

A 2011 Washington Monthly article, “Administrators Ate My Tuition,” sums up the current picture. “Forty years ago, America’s colleges employed more professors than administrators. The efforts of 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staffers. Over the past four decades, though, the number of full-time professors or ‘full-time equivalents’ increased slightly more than 50 percent. That percentage is comparable to the growth in student enrollments during the same time period. But the number of administrators and administrative staffers employed by those schools increased by an astonishing 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.

Today, administrators and staffers safely outnumber full-time faculty members on campus. In 2005, colleges and universities employed more than 675,000 full-time faculty members or full-time equivalents. In the same year, America’s colleges and universities employed more than 190,000 individuals classified by the federal government as ‘executive, administrative and managerial employees.’ Another 566,405 college and university employees were classified as ‘other professional.’ This category includes IT specialists, counselors, auditors, accountants, admissions officers, development officers, alumni relations officials, human resources staffers, editors and writers for school publications, attorneys, and a slew of others. These ‘other professionals’ are not administrators, but they work for the administration and serve as its arms, legs, eyes, ears, and mouthpieces.”

Reduce Layers of Administrative Bureaucracy

A 2011 article, “Removing the Layers of Organisational Pain,” by Michael Sleap was directed toward the business world. Here, I paraphrase his observations translated to the world of higher education.
Provosts, associate provosts, assistant provosts, deans, associate deans, assistant deans, department chairs, assistant department chairs—all with executive assistants and/or assistants—are the norm in higher education, even at small institutions. The majority of institutions have too many reporting layers. Way too many, in fact.  Why does this occur? It is partly because of the lack of thought and planning that goes into institutional structures.

But another reason for having too many reporting layers in an institution is because people underestimate the number of direct reports that any one person can effectively manage. Many people, especially in white collar functions, apply a rule of thumb of a maximum of approximately five or six direct reports for each manager, and when the number of a manager’s direct reports grows beyond that, what happens? Another manager is added to the structure. If that number of managers continues to grow, another manager is needed to manage the managers, and therefore the number of reporting layers increases over time.

Then there are the inefficiencies. Having too many reporting layers typically means that there are jobs within the structure that are adding little value to the institution, or in some cases, subtracting value. For example, a couple of years ago a government department undertook a study of what people at each level did and how they added value. The study clearly showed that there were several layers that lacked a real purpose. Managers in those roles spent a lot of time micro-managing, red penning their team’s work and served as a superfluous link in a slow and bureaucratic decision-making process.

Institutional structures need to be owned and managed by senior leadership teams. They should be reviewed at least annually. By keeping the number of reporting layers to the minimum required, institutions can increase efficiency, effectiveness and employee engagement.

Consolidate Central Administrations

In December 2011, a review of the central office structures and outsourcing contracts of the Connecticut State University (CSU) and Connecticut Community College (CCC) systems led the interim system president, Robert A. Kennedy, to predict that a savings of $4.3 million could be generated and then redistributed to the member campuses. Savings were achieved primarily through the consolidation of positions within the two central offices and a thorough examination and assessment of existing contracts to decide which services could be done more cost-effectively in-house or not at all.

“In reviewing the structure at both the CSU and CCC central offices, it was clear that in many cases we had two, or in some cases, three of a certain position or work function,” said Kennedy. “There was not room in the budget for that kind of repetition. Following through on what the Governor and Legislature asked of us, we will find new and innovative ways to ‘do more with less,’ allowing that money to funnel back toward the campuses and, ultimately, to enhance student learning and success.”

On September 25, 2012, The Board of Regents for Higher Education, which governs the 17 Connecticut State Colleges & Universities, approved the second round of tenure track faculty and direct student support positions funded solely through central office consolidation savings, which totaled more than $5.5 million. The Board approved 24 positions, following 23 that were approved in June 2012, for a total of 47 new positions across 16 of the campuses at no additional cost to students. Thirty-seven of the 47 positions were in areas focused on science, engineering, technology and math, and six more were for direct student support positions including retention specialists, transfer counselors and student advisers.
“From the very beginning, the higher education consolidation was predicated on the fact that we were spending too much money on the operation of our separate governance structures and not enough money in our classrooms,” said Lewis J. Robinson, chairman of the Board of Regents. “I don’t think we’re done yet in terms of realizing costs savings from centralized operations and reviewing past expenditures in a new light, but I do think this is a very aggressive, much needed start.”


In 1997, just about everyone in higher education said it was not possible to increase quality while reducing costs. NCAT has proven that it is indeed possible to do so through course redesign. We firmly believe that the principles of course redesign can be applied throughout the institution as illustrated above.

Most of these ideas are not new to higher education. Florida's Statewide Course Numbering System was launched in the late 1960’s. Massy and Zemsky published “The Lattice and the Ratchet” in 1990. Carol Twigg introduced the concept of course redesign in 1997. Ann Ferren and Rick Slavings published Investing in Quality: Tools for Improving Curricular Efficiency in 2000. The CSU began its graduation initiative in 2002. But very few institutions or statewide systems have implemented any of these ideas. In preparation for this article, NCAT staff spent six months looking for examples to illustrate how these ideas have been put into practice but were able to find only a few. (If you know of any, please send them to us and we will publicize them.)

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the last two decades with regard to increasing productivity in higher education. What’s different today is that the voices saying that there is a problem have grown louder and more numerous. As Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reported in The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk about Costs, Access, and Quality, “More than half of the public say that higher education could spend a lot less and still maintain high quality. Almost 60% believe that colleges could enroll a lot more students without compromising quality or increasing tuition. Much of the public doubts whether institutions of higher education are making serious efforts to control costs. Many believe that higher education today is placing economic self-interest above educational values. Similarly, many civic, business, and government leaders voice concerns that higher education institutions have, at best, only begun to address cost-effectiveness, and are urging that higher education be more productive and more accountable.”

Thus far, higher education’s leadership seems to have more or less decided that colleges and universities cannot cut their costs and become more productive. They are unable or unwilling to make the kinds of decisions and take the kinds of actions that are needed.

In this article, we have provided a menu of ideas that could be implemented throughout higher education. Our point is that institutions have a wide variety of options when it comes to increasing productivity. They do not have to implement all possible ideas. Each institution should choose the ones that best fit its particular circumstance. If you would rather close your doors than give up your physical library, decide to streamline the curriculum and your layers of administration. If your institution has already redesigned its administration, why not take on academic redesign? But stop saying, it can’t be done. Join us in helping to preserve the American dream.

--Carol A. Twigg


Featuring updates and announcements from the Center.

Two New How-To Guidebooks on Math Course Redesign

NCAT is pleased to announce the publication of two new guides on how to successfully complete a course redesign in mathematics. Both guides integrate what we have learned over the past 13 years and can be used independently by institutions, systems and states without direct NCAT intervention.

While there is substantial overlap between the two guides, there are also substantial differences.

From working with large numbers of students, faculty and institutions, NCAT has learned what works and what does not work in improving student achievement in both developmental and college-level mathematics. The pedagogical techniques leading to greater student success are equally applicable to both developmental and college-level mathematics. The underlying principle is simple: Students learn math by doing math, not by listening to someone talk about doing math. Interactive computer software combined with personalized, on-demand assistance and mandatory student participation is the key element of success. NCAT calls this model for success the Emporium Model, named after what the model’s originator, Virginia Tech, called its initial course redesign. A summary of the outcomes achieved in improving student learning, increasing student completion and reducing instruction costs in college-level math can be found on the NCAT website. A summary of the outcomes achieved in improving student learning, increasing student completion, and reducing instruction costs in developmental math can also be found on the NCAT website.

Links to both guides as well as the summaries of the outcomes produced by the Emporium Model can be found at

We at NCAT could not have produced these guides by ourselves. They represent a compendium of the good ideas created and actions taken by hundreds of faculty and administrators working on mathematics redesign since 1999. The guides are also a product of the experiences of thousands of students who once dreaded the thought of taking a math class but now say, “I can do it!”

These two publications are the first of an ongoing series that NCAT will publish over the next year. Each will include a discussion of how to use course redesign as a strategy for institutional change leading to greater student success and reduced instructional costs as well as specific information about how to implement NCAT’s course redesign methodology. Subsequent guides will include 1) how to redesign a course in any discipline, 2) how to establish an institution-wide redesign program, and 3) how to establish a state- or system-wide redesign program.

Two NCAT Webinars Remain in Fall 2013 Series: 11/19 and 12/10

NCAT has launched a series of free webinars. Each hour-long webinar features an NCAT Redesign Scholar, the project leader of a highly successful course redesign, describing the redesign project with a particular focus on its distinguishing characteristics. After a presentation, the lead faculty member is available to answer questions and provide additional specifics about the redesign.

Registration is required, but there is no registration fee. Each of our prior webinars reached maximum registration well before they were offered. We urge you to register early for our fall 2013 series. Each hour-long webinar will occur at 1 pm eastern time:

  • November 19, 2013: Redesigning Principles of Chemistry at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore presented by Jennifer Hearne, featuring active engagement in science education at a historically black institution. Click here to register.
  • December 10, 2013: Redesigning statistics at Niagara County Community College presented by Dan Miller, featuring the transferability of a statistics redesign to developmental math. Click here to register.

Videos of prior webinars may be accessed at

  • Redesigning General Psychology at Frostburg State University
  • Redesigning Computing and Information Literacy at Arizona State University
  • Redesigning developmental math at Cleveland State Community College, Chattanooga State Community College and Northwest-Shoals Community College
  • Redesigning American History and European History at the State University of New York at Potsdam

A New Look for the NCAT Website

As we announced in the October 2012 issue of The Learning MarketSpace, NCAT is shifting its focus from conducting redesign programs and public events to concentrating on analysis, publications and change strategies based on the data we have collected and the experiences we have had over the past 13 years. As part of that shift, we are in the process of reorganizing the NCAT website and adding new sections. The NCAT home page ( now includes a new section titled, “NCAT Outcomes and Analyses” with links to three new documents. Here is a brief description of each:

  • A Summary of NCAT Program Outcomes: This article summarizes the improved student learning outcomes, increased completion rates and reduced instructional costs (broken down by program) that have resulted from all NCAT programs conducted to date. NCAT has partnered with about 200 institutions. Of the 195 redesign projects that have been initiated, 156 (80%) were completed. Overall, 72% improved student learning outcomes, while 28% showed equivalent student learning. The overall cost reduction achieved by the redesigns was 34% with a range of 5% to 81%.
  • NCAT Program Outcomes and Analysis: Follow these links to final program reports and cost savings summaries for each individual NCAT program conducted to date. Previously, it was necessary to go to each program that NCAT has conducted to read about the program outcomes. Now you can click on the home page link to access the outcomes and NCAT analyses for all programs.  Each analysis discusses the quality and cost outcomes achieved, the most important quality improvement and cost reduction techniques used in the redesigns, the implementation issues they encountered and plans to sustain their course redesigns.
  • Academic Productivity: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions: This article provides an analysis of why cost savings among redesign projects vary so widely. Its purpose is to share with the higher education community some of what we have learned over the past 13 years about reducing instructional costs and to de-bunk some popular misconceptions about the relationship between cost and quality.

New Publication: An Overview of Course Redesign

NCAT has created “An Overview of Course Redesign” that provides a quick summary of the key findings, strategies and techniques, which led to the successful outcomes in all NCAT programs.

As we announced in the October 2012 issue of The Learning MarketSpace, NCAT is shifting its focus from conducting redesign programs and public events to concentrating on analysis, publications and change strategies based on the data we have collected and the experiences we have had over the past 13 years. As part of that shift, we are in the process of reorganizing the NCAT website and adding new sections. We have created “An Overview of Course Redesign” that provides a quick summary of the key findings, strategies and techniques—along with examples of how course redesign produces both improved learning and reduced cost—which led to the successful outcomes in all NCAT programs. This five-page synopsis can be referenced or printed and distributed to familiarize colleagues about the course redesign process.

Change Magazine Article Features Outcomes from Changing the Equation

The July/August 2013 issue of Change Magazine includes an extensive article, “Improving Learning and Reducing Costs: Outcomes from Changing the Equation,” by Carol A. Twigg. The 32 participating institutions redesigned a total of 96 courses, which impacted 82,000 students annually. Among the outcomes reported: 76 of the 96 courses (89%) showed improved student learning outcomes; 37 of the 50 courses that were able to calculate completion rates (74%) showed improvement; and, 31 of the 32 institutions reduced costs by 29% on average, with a range of 5% to 55%. To read the full Change article, see

NCAT Adds Four New Redesign Scholars from Missouri

NCAT has selected four Redesign Scholars from the Missouri Course Redesign Initiative, a collaborative effort between the state of Missouri and NCAT: Danae Hudson (Missouri State University), Phoebe McLaughlin (University of Central Missouri), Shing So (University of Central Missouri) and Brooke Whisenhunt (Missouri State University).These new Redesign Scholars join 52 others who are available to 1) speak at national, regional and local meetings and conferences; and, 2) consult with individual colleges and universities that want to initiate one or more course redesigns. To see biographies and descriptions of their redesign projects, visit


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