Why should colleges and universities consider course sharing?

Especially when one of the most common objections we hear is “wouldn’t an institution want their students to NOT attend other colleges?


Not wanting your students to attend another institution is a reasonable initial thought, but collaborative course sharing can help colleges and students achieve their strategic and academic goals. Here’s an analogy.

In many ways, airline tickets are much like seats in a college or university class in that they are perishable. Once the plane takes off, the ‘inventory’ of tickets are gone. After all, you can’t sell an unsold seat when the plane is in-flight. The same is true with a college or university class. Once the add/drop deadline passes, you can’t fill that seat with a new student.

Similarly, both are largely driven by fixed costs. The cost of operating a 747 is different from a regional jet just like the cost of offering a 25 student class taught by an adjunct may be different from the cost of teaching a 300 student lecture by an endowed chair. But the cost of offering the flight (for an airline) or section (for an institution) isn’t highly dependent on the number of people in seats. A 747 flying half-full will cost pretty much the same amount as when it is full. Similarly, the cost of offering a section with 10 filled seats and 10 empty seats is about the same as with all 20 seats full.

Breadth of offering is also important. If an airline doesn’t offer a flight on the route you need at a time that works for you, then you can’t take that flight. The same is true for students. If the section of the course they need isn’t available at a time that fits their schedule, then they are unable to fulfill the requirement. And, in most cases, they will inevitably fall off track.

Plane

Finally, the same objection applies: Delta wouldn’t want you flying on Air France, right?

Well, as it turns out, Delta is part of Sky Team, a collaborative alliance of airlines to “codeshare” flights. You can buy a ticket from Aeromexico and end up on a Delta flight. You can be on a flight that you thought was run by Delta and end up on an Air France plane instead. This isn’t unusual, and by now, it probably doesn’t even phase you because it’s happening all across the airline industry. American is part of One World Alliance, and United is part of Star Alliance.


So why should colleges and universities explore collaborative course sharing?

There are many benefits to this new type of collaboration. Here are just a few.

Increase On-time Completion

Students finishing their degrees or certificates on time is a key metric for many institutions. And in some cases, improvements (or declines) in completion rates drive funding. We all know some students will end up not being able to take a course they need at the time it’s offered. For example, the only available times may conflict with their schedule, or the student may need to repeat a course, or the student may even need to take a semester off.

But unless your institution is offering a section of every course, every semester – and at every time of day – there’s a good chance that at least some of your students are graduating late or not at all because of these conflicts.

Of course, offering a ‘full’ inventory of even one section of every course every term is cost-prohibitive for even the largest colleges and universities. There just aren’t enough students that need Genetics in Late-Start summer.

But with collaborative course sharing via the Quottly network, your institution can tap into tens of thousands of sections at other colleges and universities to provide this flexibility, without hiring more faculty or building new buildings.

Increase your Utilization Ratio

Since we’ve established that the cost of offering a section of a course is not dependent on how full the section is, ideally, in order to keep costs down for students, every section would be run at full capacity. That is, at a high utilization ratio.

However, uncertainty in demand and the need to offer multiple sections of courses for scheduling flexibility makes running at a high utilization ratio difficult for many colleges and universities.

Let’s say you generally offer four, 25-student sections of Stats 1 at four different times of day, and generally have 60 registrations between them. For that class, you have a 60% utilization ratio. Sixty percent is not ideal, but you’re not willing to only offer three sections because you know there are a handful of students who need each of your four sections because of scheduling conflicts. So if you close any one of them, you’ll leave some students in a lurch.

Now let’s say you decide to explore course sharing. With course sharing, you could offer three, 25-student sections and a course-shared online section through a peer institution at the fourth time. You may end up with 55 students across your 75 seats – a 73% utilization ratio – and five taking your course-shared course.

In this example, your college reduced your cost of instruction by 25% while only reducing credits taught by 8%. This is a huge win for your bottom line!

And this scenario is not even taking into account our next reason for course sharing.

Fill Empty Seats

In the previous example, a college can increase their utilization ratio by closing a section of Stat 1, going from 60/100 seats filled to 55/75, with five students taking credit elsewhere.

This approach reduces costs by 25% while only reducing credits taught by 8%. But it is a mistake to think that course sharing means fewer credits taught.

Your peer colleges with whom you are course sharing are also looking to offer courses they can’t teach at a specific time, or can’t teach economically. Just as you are sending five students to their institution, they might be sending five (or more!) students to you.

In this example, perhaps the college in question offers an online section of Stat 2 and an in-person section of the same class. And, the college typically fills 30 of the 50 seats, again for a 60% utilization ratio. The college chooses to continue offering both sections.

But while College A sends five students away to their peer college for Stat 1, their peer college sends them five students for Stat 2.

So, taking this into account, the college has the following benefits:

Before:

Course Sections Offered Seats Used Ratio
Stat 1 4 60/100 60%
Stat 2 2 30/50 60%

After:

Course Sections Offered Seats Used Ratio
Stat 1 2 55/75 (-5 shared) 73%
Stat 2 3 35/50 (+5 shared) 70%

College A is able to reduce their instruction cost between these two classes by 20% (five sections to four). And they can do this while keeping credits taught constant!

College B experiences the same benefit, but in reverse. This process can repeat across the hundreds or thousands of courses offered by each institution.

With collaborative course sharing, institutions can fill empty seats and increase their overall efficiency. And this leads to better student outcomes at a lower cost. When properly implemented, everybody wins.

Expand the Breadth of Courses

Your college might love to offer a full suite of, say, Ancient Greek, in order to offer a traditional classics education. But perhaps there are only a handful of students interested in that subject – and certainly not enough to hire a faculty member. Referring back to our airline analogy, it’s similar to how Delta might love to offer a flight to Marseille, not just Paris, but just can’t see enough demand to add a route themselves.

With course sharing, you can offer courses to your students as elective, enrichment, or specialization opportunities that you would not otherwise be able to afford to offer. It’s just like how Delta can offer flights through their partners to more than 10,000 destinations, while only flying about 2,000 routes themselves. In both cases, neither your institution nor the airline needs to hire more staff.

Maintain Control

Some administrators worry about making this a ‘free for all.’ But with course sharing, the college or university can remain in control of what opportunities are offered to their students in order to maximize the benefit for both the institution and the student.

Your institution can implement rules like “the student is not allowed to take a shared course unless a section at the home college is unavailable.” It’s just like how Delta will only offer you a ticket on Air France if they don’t have a similar flight with an empty seat.

You can enforce these rules automatically, without causing additional administrative overhead.

So as you can see, course sharing offers numerous benefits to your institution – and to your students. By expanding access through collaborative course sharing, you can improve student completion rates by helping students find the course they need, when they need it, while simultaneously improving operational efficiency. The result? More students stay on track and finish their degree on-time, without more spending.

About the Author

James Gibson

Co-founder and CTO at Quottly.