No one, not even the magazine’s own editors, will deny that the annual U.S. News and World Report college rankings are arbitrary. Certainly not those at Stanford, which almost sued the newsweekly for its low ranking. And, of course, certainly not those at our own Williams College, which has been in the unfamiliar position of third for quite some time now.
Whatever one may think about the rankings’ fairness or relative importance, they remain a valuable tool for colleges – not just to see how they stack up to their competitors, but also where they may need to improve. For while we at Williams College may lament our low ranking yet again, we ought not let our disappointment obscure one of the things our low ranking is signaling: class sizes and enrollments unbecoming of a top liberal arts college.
Whenever it can, this school touts the value of its small classes and its liberal artsstatus. Yet, if one visits most of this school’s introductory classes, they will find class sizes rivaling those of larger colleges. Psychology 101, perhaps the most famous of all the big classes at this college, had upwards of 150 students last semester. It was not the only one. Art History 101, Computer Science 105, Chemistry 101, Music 111, and many others, have more than 80 students per class this semester.
This problem has crept into some 200-level classes as well. For instance, both Political Science 221: Causes of War and English 204: The Feature Film have over 70 students.
However, class sizes aren’t the biggest problem. No, at a liberal arts college like ours, the biggest problem (something probably not taken into account by U.S. News) comes when students at this school aren’t let into the classes they want because of overregistration. This used to be a problem just for the UC Berkeleys of the world, where it would not be uncommon for students to camp out in front of the Registrar’s Office days before registration began. While no Williams student can ever tell tales of camping outside of Hopkins Hall, they most certainlycan recount their being refused from classes they had wanted to take. Some of the classes already mentioned, such as Art History 101 (a department which attracts many students to Williams), Computer Science 105, and Music 111 closed registration, and in some cases, dropped students from class rolls altogether.
Certainly, while class size is a problem, big classes are better than no classes at all. That is why this whole notion of students being dropped out of classes is so troublesome in the first place.
There are many sacrifices to be made when going to Williams instead of a bigger school. Obviously, there are significantly fewer social and entertainment options. The research facilities and labs are not likely to be as big. There isn’t as wide a variety of classes or majors.
Yet, we chose Williams because we felt in our minds that the small classes and liberal arts nature of this college would outweigh all of the disadvantages.
Sadly, that no longer seems the case, as class sizes continue to increase (though not at UC Berkeley levels), and worse yet, students get dropped from classes they want to take.
This is not to ignore the very important financial aspect of all this. Not only are we giving up a lot in terms of entertainment and class variety when we come here; but we are also paying substantially more for our liberal arts education. $30,000 is a lot to pay for a college education, especially when at many public schools we pay one-third to one-half of that amount. For all the money we students (or more aptly, our parents) are paying this school, it is not unreasonable of us to ask for smaller classes. Even if that cannot happen, the college has no right to drop any student from classes they are interested in taking.
Justifying the cost of a $30,000 education is hard enough. Justifying that cost when being dropped from a class is impossible.