Institutional Analytics Blog

7 behaviors that guarantee inaccurate course capacities

Accurate maximum enrollment capacities are critical for course planning

By Katerina Chan

"I have taught in the same room the past three years, so I’m going to set my max cap at a number that will ensure I am assigned that room again."

"I will set my max cap to zero, because I want to monitor which students enroll in my course."

"Other instructors for this course are setting their section caps to whichever number they prefer, so I will do the same."

These common behaviors from instructional staff aim to solve immediate course capacity issues and, while seemingly harmless, erode data quality and obstruct understanding of true instructional capacity.

Why max caps matter

The maximum enrollment capacity, or max cap, of a class is used to calculate fill rates (the number of enrolled students dived by the max cap of the course). Fill rates, in turn, are a key metric to analyze course capacity and ensure it matches student demand. A mismatch between these two can result in bottlenecked courses where students are unable to access required classes, and underfilled courses where there are opportunities to reduce the number of sections offered.

If set correctly, the max cap should reflect the pedagogical requirements of the course. For example, courses with a focus on writing or discussion require a closer relationship between students and instructors, so the max cap may be set between 18 and 25 students. Traditional lecture classes, on the other hand, may not have such limits and can be set at 30 or more students. Many discipline-specific associations have recommendations for the appropriate instructor to student ratio based on course content and design.

But the ideal is not the reality. Analysis of Academic Performance Solutions (APS) data found that nearly 40% of multi-section courses have variable max caps among sections, a clear indicator that the cap was not consistently set based on pedagogy. The analysis also found that specific course types, such as practicums, are more likely to have caps set at zero.

A lack of (or lax) policy around max caps

So why are so many max caps so unreliable? There are seven common behaviors that contribute to the issue. The first four all trace back to a lack of—or unenforced—policy.

1. Faculty set max caps for each of their sections based on room preference or desired class size

2. Departments and colleges have differing standards for max caps within course types

3. Variability in section size within course types across the same or similar departments

4. Max caps for the same course decrease or change unpredictably over time

To address these issues, the college or university should implement a policy that governs course enrollment capacity. Typically, creating a max cap policy is a collaborative process between the provost’s office and deans to provide guidance that will accommodate student demand, ensure equitable faculty workloads, and optimize the use of institutional funds and physical space.

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Attempting to manipulate enrollment outside of the registration system

In addition to a lack of policy, other behaviors that lead to inaccurate max caps are motivated by a desire to manage enrollment outside of the registration system.

5. Max caps are reverted to zero prior to registration to control which students enroll

6. Max caps are changed to zero to close classes and stop enrollment

7. Max caps are slowly increased for sections of a course across the registration period to even out section enrollment

Rather than adjusting the max cap, the registration system should be leveraged to provide a more sustainable solution to each of these issues. For example, instead of setting the max cap to zero to manually approve each student registering, faculty can leverage student permissions functionality in the registration system.

Combat enrollment-demand capacity mismatches on your campus

Shifting student demand patterns are creating less predictable enrollments across terms and years. Learn how you can best realign resources to meet changing enrollment patterns.

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