STEM students face scheduling challenges at COS

Deborra Brannon

Concerns have been raised by students and faculty at College of the Siskiyous about upper level math and physics classes threatened or cancelled due to low enrollment and the impact of that on students’ educational paths.

College president Scotty Thomason acknowledged that COS “has not been as strong in enrollment management efforts as it could have been. This year we’ve taken significant steps to improve scheduling so it’s more student centered and we can let students take what they need.” He said the school has spent months refining the 2015 summer and fall class schedules, a process that began in January.

He said the administration also has been working with faculty and the Academic Senate to establish a rubric for determining whether a class will run, based not only on enrollment but on whether the class is needed for a student to graduate, is in a two-year rotation, is part of a sequence, or is needed for transfer.

Some students are leaving the college and report that others have already left, because they are not confident the classes they need will run.

Dunsmuir High School 2014 valedictorian Chris Headley is one of them.

Chris said he was told by a COS academic counselor that he could satisfy his prerequisites at the college for transfer as a junior majoring in engineering. With that assurance, he decided not to take advantage of his acceptance at Cal Poly but rather to complete an internship at FireWhat, Inc. in Dunsmuir and start his post-secondary schooling at COS.

Then, he said, his classes started getting cut. He said he signed up for Calculus II in the spring 2015 semester but the class was dropped due to low enrollment within about a week. “Two people from physics left COS then. It would have instantly held those kids back a year unless they transferred elsewhere.”

The minimum enrollment for a COS class to run has been 15 students “for many years,” according to Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dennis Weathers. The college is now looking at raising that number to 20.

Thomason said classes have been averaging 16 students this year, “but financially that’s not a break-even number. Our reserves have been going down.”

California Community College Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Pam Walker said, “It would not be financially logical to offer a class with, say, four students in it. It may not even be academically logical, since the class wouldn’t be very robust” with so few students enrolled.

While classes early in a science, technology, engineering or math sequence may be fully enrolled, some of the higher level classes in those series may draw fewer than 10 students in a given semester.

Chris pointed out that in his field, “everything is sequential. It’s all a series of classes in chronological order. If one class gets dropped, you wait a whole year until it might be offered again.”

Walker agreed that some students may get “disenfranchised” because a class they need isn’t offered or is cancelled due to low enrollment, before they want to leave a community college.

But she pointed out that the same situation can arise for students in larger colleges for the opposite reason.

“Students can have to wait two to three semesters for a certain class because the program is too impacted,” Walker explained.

When mid- and final-level classes in math and science series draw too few students, it is often STEM majors who are adversely impacted.

“Yes, we’re a small school and may only serve a few STEM students, but if it changes their lives and futures, that’s to the good,” commented retiring COS math instructor Jerry Pompa.

Science, technology, engineering, and math dominate the list of highest salary potential for bachelor’s degrees, according to a list of the top 50 high-paying college majors posted on:

Part time COS engineering instructor Debbie Desrochers said she is concerned that the college is limiting options for local students.

“If the college doesn’t have these STEM programs, students won’t know they have these options,” she said.

Desrochers described a “full circle” opportunity for students to attend COS, transfer as STEM junior-level students to four-year schools, then attend graduate school and return to Siskiyou County to start businesses or enterprises.

“Our county has the potential to attract high tech jobs and the entrepreneurial efforts of those who studied at COS and then return because they love the area. If we don’t have these educational and career paths, then kids can’t come back,” Desrochers said.

Student Services

Walker suggested one challenge facing both students and community colleges in the area of class availability may be in the communication between a college and an enrolling students. “Does the student understand that this is a two year program of study but that it can take more than two years to complete it, based on scheduling?”

International COS student Simon Leon said a family member living in Siskiyou County suggested he travel from Peru to study here.

He saw that the COS catalogue included an associates degree in engineering and said he was told when he arrived on campus that all the classes he needed for that major would be offered over a period of two years.

In his estimation, that turned out not to be the case as he tried to pursue his required math and physics series.

Simon believes that of the 23 students in his Calculus II class, only 12 needed Calculus III for their majors. They heard it wouldn’t be offered due to low enrollment, he said. “One student left due to the uncertainty. We petitioned the Dean to provide the class and our math instructor presented our request to the college board of trustees. Then they said the class would run. They weren’t happy about it, but they did it. We fought for that class.”

Thomason said COS is working to strengthen the student services area of the college and strengthen the internal communication process among academic counselors, faculty, and administrators to address scheduling issues.

Educational plans created for each student at the outset of their enrollment equip academic counselors to make recommendations about what classes the college needs to offer, he explained.

The college is returning to a former administrative model by hiring a vice president of student services to bolster that department, and is hiring a director of admissions and one more academic counselor in order to lower the student/counselor ratio at the school.

“Students come to school to learn but they stay in school because of the counselors in student services,” said Greg South, COS Vice President of Academic Affairs. “This is a best practice, proven practice at other schools – student services create and help manage educational plans and faculty are the experts in the classroom. They work together to enhance student success.”

Another challenge in situations wherein low enrollment is likely, according to Walker, is that although each enrolled student draws up an educational plan with an academic counselor, students have choices and sometimes diverge from the plan.

COS Vice President of Academic Affairs Greg South said he is aware of several instances of this happening. “Some classes have been offered timely and the students didn’t take them. So they were under-enrolled when offered, and then the students asked for the same class the following semester.”

Alternative options

South said the college has a demonstrated history of letting courses run with fewer students, and said the Calculus II course that was cancelled didn’t run because “no instructor would teach it at lower pay.”

An instructor’s willingness to teach a class at reduced pay is another way COS has met the challenge of low class enrollment.

It is a choice not all faculty find equitable.

To Thomason, however, “This option is a tradition here, something special about COS. It allows us to provide classes we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to offer.”

South emphasized that teaching classes at reduced pay is a “voluntary overload” option for full time faculty. “They are still making their contract salary – this is an opportunity to make additional money.”

Online courses through other institutions present another alternative for students who need a course not offered at COS – or not offered when they need it. South said students can work with academic counselors to find needed prerequisite courses in that format.

A third option suggested by Thomason for earning credit for a class that doesn’t meet minimum enrollment standards is independent study, wherein an instructor works with just one or two students.

Student retention

“We want students to complete every class with us before they move on. It’s beneficial to them, to their families, and to the college,” Thomason said.

Biology instructor Alison Varty pointed out that STEM students are some of the ones that raise the bar in general education classes. “They help other students learn how to buckle down and be successful. If we lose them we lose not just them but their example to other students who may not be as academically prepared,” she commented.

Yreka High School graduate Jeremy Walker is majoring in robotics and electrical engineering at COS and carries a 4.0 GPA.

In addition to his own studies, he contributes to the learning of other COS students as a math tutor 20 hours a week.

Now Jeremy is transferring to Rogue Valley College in southern Oregon.

He said his major requires the full series of math and physics classes he is no longer certain will be offered in sequential semesters.

“It’s very frustrating because the instructors here are great, but the decision is very clear given the lack of security in what I’d be offered here at COS.”

Chris Headley intends to fight for Physics III, another required class in his major. If it’s not offered, he said he will leave for Shasta College. If it runs, he’ll stay one more semester to take it and then leave.

“I’ve given up on math. I have no confidence I can get what I need,” he said.

Simon Leon will stay one more semester to satisfy the terms of his visa extension and then transfer to Southern Oregon University for a year to get the classes he needs before transferring to UC Berkeley.

He observed that if students leave because physics classes are not offered, “you’ll lose those students’ enrollment in chemistry and in all their other classes too. And students support this community. We eat and shop here, buy gas, food, and clothing.”

Thomason said enrollment has gone down at COS due to a number of factors, but reiterated that “not being as effective in enrollment management as we could be is part of it. We’re doing a better job now of tracking enrollment. We want to offer classes when they are needed or in sequence – reliably.”