Business Intelligence in Higher Education: Classroom Scheduling Optimization

By Freed Maxick Higher Education Team on March 29, 2022
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Freed Maxick Higher Education Team


The airline industry and higher education have something in common: providing a valuable service to its customer base by stewarding them through their own individual journeys. But there is one stark difference which has a great impact on the financial viability of either organization, and that is monitoring their capacities. A flight on any aircraft has only a finite number of seats that a given number of passengers can occupy. Each ticket sold is a drop of vital revenue that an airline cherishes in hopes of outweighing its expenses. Some of these costs are variable, such as flight personnel, food and beverages, fuel, repairs, and maintenance. Not to mention all of the fixed and supporting costs airlines pay just to occupy precious space in an airport terminal. Every attempt is made for each seat to be filled to maximize the amount of revenue earned before each plane sets course on its journey.

This kind of business acumen is a no-brainer for an airline - increase your return on investment (ROI). Yet, where airlines prioritize maximum capacity, many higher education institutions struggle to maximize their seat capacities within their classrooms. Why is such a fundamental way of doing business overlooked? 

The short answer is “it’s complicated.” The important decisions routinely made about course offerings, class sizes, classroom usage, faculty staffing, and independent studies are managed by academic departments. Many deans and chairs do not have the data visualization to interpret the relationship between costs and class sizes. In addition, curricular sequencing is usually not supportive of maximizing ROI, causing most sections to run well under maximum capacity. This predicament ultimately compounds and starts to undermine the institution’s financial stability.

When we review our client’s classroom scheduling optimization data, one of the key metrics we focus on is how to identify what class sizes are optimal for the program and what classes and programs are losing money for the institution. These are not easy conversations for academic departments to have because the welfare of their department, colleagues, alumni, and current students are at stake. Many departments never have these conversations, nor would they be able to obtain the data visualizations needed to have them.

A common strategic benchmark of most institutions is measuring how many students are placed in a particular class section (according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) from 2009, the average class size of a U.S. private institution was 19). When we dig into the data, we often find that institutions have multiple sections containing class sizes of 1-5 students. At this enrollment, tuition revenue isn’t even enough to cover both the instructional and non-instructional expenses to run that section.

Several key arguments often surface from academic and financial leaders when they review this data for the first time such as, “a smaller class size provides for a more intimate setting and enhances the student’s ability to learn and retain knowledge in one’s field of study.” Another common rebuttal is, “we needed to open that section in order to ensure the students’ progress in their major.” The financial cost of maintaining smaller class sizes equates to more sections being offered which increases instructional costs through having to add additional faculty overload contracts and hiring adjunct professors. 

So, how can your institution optimize its classroom scheduling by pruning its small class sizes and eliminating smaller sections? Here are 4 strategies for managing your class section sizes:

  • Get Rid of Pre-Reqs. Modify course requirements so that the courses could be taken in any sequence rather than as prerequisites for each other. This can help eliminate sections of teaching each term in a relatively small department, and allow the department more flexibility for course runs. If content knowledge is needed before students’ progress, consider basic online content modules instead of prerequisites.
  • Merge course content. Courses that achieve the same objective with similarities of their content could be consolidated within an academic department or another school at the institution. One of the more classic examples for this is introductory courses in Statistics. At many institutions, there are distinct versions offered in Math, Business, Social Sciences, and other areas – with mostly overlapping content.  
  • Decrease new course development. Newly created courses spawn additional faculty costs but don’t necessarily increase tuition revenue to the institution. Just adding additional courses to the population without eliminating other courses or sections increases the overall instructional expense. In addition, when you allocate your current student population over an increased roster of courses, this creates a negative impact on your bottom line.
  • Prune current courses. Many institutions have a number of courses that consistently have low enrollment. Cutting these courses reduces cost and redirects your faculty to perfecting critical classes of their curriculum

Connect with Freed Maxick’s Higher Education Business Intelligence Specialists

Freed Maxick’s Business Intelligence Consulting practice focuses on bringing relevant and useful data to colleges and universities that would otherwise go unnoticed. Our team of professionals uses its proprietary software platform and methodology to help you analyze critical financial components of how your programs operate, drilling into the revenues, expenses, and course level detail of your academic portfolios. We refresh this data throughout the year to allow for comparisons across periods, so it’s not just a one-time snapshot, but can be used to further refine strategy to mitigate costs, set targets and hold stakeholders accountable to results.

Please schedule a complimentary discussion with our team at 716.336.7067 or visit our website at

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