Enrollment Growth Simulation Modeling at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

When we talk about enrollment growth, what we’re really talking about is balance.

We recently interviewed Dr. Raafat Zaini, Research Scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the expert who is responsible for creating a dynamic enrollment model for university expansion.

The bottom line of Dr. Zaini’s research study, “Let’s Talk Change in a University: A Simple Model for Addressing a Complex Agenda,” is that everything is connected.

Dr. Zaini calls WPI a hidden gem in the heart of Massachusetts. “During my role as a research scientist at the social science and policy studies at WPI, I’ve worked at the interdisciplinary connection between the social sciences, modeling and simulation, and group organization behavior,” he explained.

Creating Space for Enrollment Growth Collaboration

The original goal behind Dr. Zaini’s dynamic enrollment model for university expansion was to create space for the administration and the faculty to express their views about expansion.

As anyone who’s ever set foot in a university knows, individual stakeholders in departments are very good at fighting for and getting what makes their world more efficient and more profitable.

But they don’t always understand how their decisions impact the rest of the institution.

The dynamic behind the model was to help universities avoid making decisions in isolation. To foster interdependence all enrollment growth factors—administration, facility, faculty, and even financials.

“Enrollment growth could be a quick decision,” Dr. Zaini said. “However, the implications of that would manifest themselves over time.”

Some would be short term implications, and some would be long term. But the outcomes do need to be recognized and drawn into the conversation.

“Building the model just makes these interconnections more explicit,” Dr. Zaini said. “So, this is how we see how a tool like modeling and simulation help the stakeholders have a better conversation.”

Understanding the Interdependence of Enrollment Growth Factors

Enrollment growth isn’t necessarily a net revenue increase. Mainly because increased enrollment also triggers other costs, especially more faculty and facilities.

“Students needs services. But first of all, they need professors to teach them. And this is what was the core of the model,” Dr. Zaini said.

This gets to the heart of what quality means in education.

And it doesn’t have to do with reputation or ranking. It’s what the institution promised to deliver to its students.

  • Offering courses on time
  • Getting students to the right term or semester
  • Having faculty available for questions during office hours
  • Providing lab space for experiments

If enrollment increases, these things have to rise to match that growth.

For example, if a university suddenly changes the student to faculty ratio, the least of the consequences would be the load on the faculty, Dr. Zaini pointed out.

Going from a class of twenty to an auditorium size without having TA support for faculty would be a huge issue.

A short term policy could be to hire more faculty quickly. But then, if you hire faculty more quickly, it lowers the demand on them.

“Are you hiring faculty with quality in mind or are you hiring faculty only to fill the gaps?” Dr. Zaini asked.

Or if a university added a new program to entice enrollment, it will need lab space. But adding more faculty without being able to provide that lab space at the same time would also have negative consequences.

“So, when facilities, faculty, enrollment, and those who assess quality of education don’t talk with each other and think about those decisions, they would create chaos around campus,” Dr. Zaini said.

Which leads to a vicious cycle of trying to up enrollment again to correct those other issues—which just were caused by adding more students.

Finding Enrollment, Faculty and Facilities Equilibrium

There’s no perfect prescription.

Every institution knows how it operates. It understands its capabilities of 1) hiring faculty, 2) expanding facilities, and 3) evaluating quality.

“When people start talking about all these things, they figure out the right mix, if you will,” Dr. Zaini said.

“What the model helps them to do is input all these values and run a simulation to see what’s going to happen,” he added.

They can also run multiple scenarios with the maximum and minimum values to examine graduation rates and find out whether they are creating a short term issue or a long term issue with those numbers. that will be resolved or a long term issue.

When you agree across departments, for instance, to increase the faculty load by 10%, people will be more committed to live with the consequences and even try to improve them when you execute on the decision.

“Make these things explicit, put them on the table, talk about them, and make decisions. Go and then reevaluate,” Dr. Zaini recommended.

Creating Understanding Between Stakeholders

The prototype of the model was created at WPI when the Vice President of Enrollment and Marketing led a group of senior faculty members from different schools and administrators in a session discussing exactly these topics.

“We explained what’s happening in marketing and what’s happening in faculty load and what’s happening in facilities,” Dr. Zaini said, crediting the discussion with the basis of the model.

While they were building the model, a faculty member noticed that he was advocating for decreasing the faculty load by adding more faculty.

“But then he noticed that when adding more faculty quickly, we are adding more load on facilities. So, despite the fact that it helped faculty load, that solution is hurting faculty somewhere else because they would be suffering more from space,” Dr. Zaini said.

The model helped them discover new venues for discussion without even having more people at the table.

Dr. Zaini said that while the model is still a prototype in terms of its efficacy in influencing policies, it’s been very instrumental in facilitating conversation.

Moving Forward With a Scalable Growth Plan

So far, the biggest takeaway is that outcomes are all connected to each other.

“The most important point is that improvements in one domain could create issues in another domain,” Dr. Zaini said.

Some growth decisions, especially those made independently and in isolation, can take a long time to recover from in terms of unintended consequences.

Universities using his model should remember these three things:

  1. The model is not designed to be complex but to show the interdependence of the relationships.
  2. The essence of the model is to be used for communication and the creation of scenarios that help people feel represented around the table.
  3. Getting good tools or models is not sufficient to create change—the people on the ground have to take it and move forward with it.

“Making change through a model is just one step towards creating that conversation, but it doesn’t create that change,” Dr. Zaini said.

“We need agents who believe in using such tools and making them common practice in the boardroom and classroom,” he said.

Listeners can to connect with Dr. Zaini by email at RZaini@wpi.edu or on Twitter @RaafatZaini and LinkedIn.

Be sure to listen to every episode of Enrollment Growth University for more incredible insights like Dr. Zaini’s.

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