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Online Course Caps: A Survey

As online courses continue to permeate the curricula of many higher education institutions, administrators often raise the issue of a maximum number of students in a course—the “course cap”—as a factor that directly contributes to profitability and sustainability of online programs. Increasing traditionally low online course caps, one could argue, can help offset the costs associated with providing technical infrastructure and faculty and student support. But faculty fear that high course caps could have an adverse effect on their workloads and consequently on student learning outcomes.

At a response rate of 33 percent, 101 institutions responded to the survey. The respondents represented institutions ranging in size from about 1,000 full-time students to more than 100,000. Most of the responses (65 percent) represented public institutions (with the remaining 35 percent representing private institutions). Respondents included an array of institutional types: from community colleges and small private colleges to large state systems and very large for-profit universities.

In addition to finding the average course cap, the survey also attempted to answer related questions:

  • Are there differences between public and private institutions when it comes to setting online course caps?
  • Do course delivery methods influence course caps (e.g., do courses delivered via video streaming accommodate more students per class than those courses that use asynchronous discussion as the primary teaching tool)?
  • Is there a difference in online course caps for programs taught primarily by full-time faculty and those taught primarily by adjunct faculty?
  • Are there any differences between experienced and inexperienced providers of online courses?
  • Are there differences between undergraduate and graduate courses?
Characterizing the “Average”

The survey found that the average course cap is 30 students at the undergraduate level and 28 at the graduate level (with the range between 10 and 150 students at both levels). The value that appeared with the greatest frequency (i.e., the mode) was 25 students. Public institutions tend to have notably higher course caps than do private institutions. Thus, public institutions have average course caps of 34 at the undergraduate level and 32 at the graduate level. Private institutions, however, average significantly lower course caps at 22 and 21 respectively. Programs utilizing mostly full-time faculty also tend to have higher course caps (by as many 10 students) than those utilizing mostly adjunct faculty. Courses taught by full-time faculty average a course cap of 34 students at the undergraduate level and 26 at the graduate level; those taught by adjunct faculty average 24 and 21, respectively.

Course delivery methods seem to play a part in setting a course cap. For example, courses utilizing asynchronous discussion as the primary mode of instruction have an average course cap of 29 at the undergraduate level and 27 at the graduate level. However, courses utilizing video (e.g., video streaming) as the predominant mode of instruction have an average course cap of 57 and 55, respectively.

The institutions that have been offering online courses for 10 years or more have lower average course caps than those institutions that are newer to online learning. Thus, the average online course cap for experienced institutions (having offered online courses for 10 or more years) is 23 students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Their less experienced counterparts (having offered online courses for less than 10 years) have an average course cap of 34 at the undergraduate level and 26 at the graduate level.

There also seems to be a difference in online course caps between undergraduate- and graduate-level programs. For example, the average undergraduate course cap is 30; it is 28 at the graduate level. This trend of lower graduate course caps is evident regardless of faculty type (full-time vs. adjunct), institutional ownership (private vs. public), or course delivery method (discussion vs. streaming video).

Course caps should ensure that the course
and program goals, along with institutional characteristics can be met and preserved.

Planning Considerations

Institutions should be careful when setting their online course caps because adopting the average course cap may not be the best solution. Just as the “C” grade portrays an “average” student, not every student strives to be at that level. Likewise, not every institution should strive to adopt the average online course caps. Course caps should ensure that the course and program goals and institutional characteristics can be met and preserved.

In order to meet and preserve program goals and institutional characteristics, many institutions reported consider the following when determining course caps:

  • Course discipline: In many cases, course discipline mandated a course cap. For instance, an undergraduate English course may lend itself to having a larger course cap than an upper-level pre-med course. Respondents to the survey indicated that the course cap is often determined by department chairs (and sometimes even by individual faculty).
  • Enrollments: Course caps are sometimes not an issue because of low enrollments. For example, an institution with a small number of online students may set a course cap at 45 but never really achieve it because there are not 45 students who could take that course at that time.
  • Compensation levels: Faculty pay is sometimes tied to course caps. For example, the faculty member receives a base salary for teaching a course when the number of students equals the course cap (or less). For every additional student, the faculty member receives additional compensation. Operationally, this is only practical when it comes to adjunct faculty.
  • Institutional characteristics: Depending on their character, institutions may deliberately set course caps that defy the norm (or the average). Thus, a small, private, liberal arts college may intentionally cap online courses at ten students to preserve a high level of student-faculty interaction; large, research-oriented institutions, by the same token, may employ several teaching assistants for one course and thus be able to set relatively high course caps.
Quality and Cost-Effectiveness

It is important to note that course caps (average or not) are neither an indicator of academic quality, nor-cost effectiveness. On the one hand, an online course can be structured in a way to ensure that its objectives are met with a course cap of ten or 100 students. However, faculty often argue that a smaller number of students can help ensure more student-faculty interaction (and myriad studies indicate that this interaction can indeed yield higher learning outcomes and higher retention rates). Furthermore, faculty also note that some course delivery methods, such as those utilizing asynchronous discussion as the primary teaching tool, can become overwhelming for students when the number of discussion messages reaches exponential levels. Likewise, when it comes to cost-effectiveness, it is feasible that a course with ten students may cost a lot more per student than one with 100.

If we decide not to consider quality at all, then the issue of cost-effectivenes will most likely surface as the primary driver of the need to increase course caps. After all, to be able to offer online courses, institutions need to remain profitable. What it means to be profitable clearly depends on the unique circumstances of each institution. However, profitability is not only achieved by increasing revenues (i.e., adding more students to each course) but also by decreasing expenses (i.e., finding innovative ways to fund or decrease costs associated with administration, teaching, or technology). Achieving profitability may not be an easy task, but it is not mission impossible. For example, in 2003, the University of Ph'enix Online achieved a sizeable net income ($110M) while maintaining a course cap significantly below the average (13 students).

If one of the most profitable institutions maintains one of the lowest course caps, one cannot help but ask if increasing the course cap will truly have a positive impact on profitability? Large course caps could make online courses and programs less appealing to prospective students, thus actually making the program less marketable. With that in mind, faculty and administrators alike should look at the bigger picture of revenues and expenses in order to ensure to sustainability and profitability of online programs. It may be that the size of an online course cap d'es not matter after all.

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