Students contend with 2011 course over-enrollment

As the end of the semester nears, many students enrolling in spring semester classes are voicing concerns and frustration with over-enrollment. With the number of students dropped from classes on the rise, student outcry has boiled over. The administration has taken notice, and the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) is taking a closer look at the over-enrollment problem.

Abbie Deal ’13, who plans to major in political science and German, started a thread on WSO after being dropped from the spring 2011 section of ARTS 241, a painting class she had already been dropped from prior to the fall semester. The course, with preference given to studio art majors, students with two semesters of drawing and sophomores, was overenrolled by 12 people.

“When I was dropped the first time, I e-mailed the professor again and essentially pleaded to be let back into the class, but despite meeting with him one-on-one and attending the first class meeting I still wasn’t able to get back into the class,” Deal said. “When I reapplied for the spring section of the course I was very clear that I had been dropped the previous semester. Nonetheless, I was dropped [again].”

According to Guy Hedreen, chair of the CEP and professor of art history, “more students are being dropped from classes now than ten or fifteen years ago.” CEP data shows that the average number of students dropped per semester ten to fifteen years ago was 293. The average number of students dropped now is approximately 583 students. Additionally, in the 1990s, the percentage of classes at the College that had enrollment caps was under 40 percent. Today, the number of capped classes is over 80 percent.

The CEP has been conducting a study of policies for capping courses across the campus. They are also currently discussing the increasing over-enrollment problem. A set of questions was sent out to the chairs of departments and programs, asking about departmental policies on classroom caps and overall experiences regarding over-enrollment.

Hedreen pointed to three major factors that have contributed to increasing over-enrollment: the growth of tutorials (capped at ten students), an increase in the implementation for writing intensive classes (classes are automatically capped at 19 students) and the commitment from the faculty and the College as a whole to the traditional small class sizes that enable meaningful and engaging student-faculty relations.

Mary Morrison, associate registrar for records and registration, said that over-enrollment issues are a product of the values and tendencies of students.

“The increase in the number of students dropped from classes is a natural outcome of other trends in the College, specifically more emphasis on writing intensive and tutorial courses,” she said. “If the students want small class sizes, then [they] just can’t get into every course [they] want. The system is a bit of a gamble because you don’t know going into preregistration whether you’re going to get a course or not. You just have to hope for the best and see what happens.”

Hedreen said that the CEP knows students find it frustrating to be dropped from classes and difficult to find replacement classes, noting that the CEP is “exploring ways of making the process more transparent and less chaotic.

“As long as we are committed to teaching students in small class environments and committed to giving students choice as to what and with whom they study, there will always be over-enrollment,” Hedreen said. “In the fall and spring, students preregister for classes, and no restrictions are placed on the number of students who may sign up for particular classes at that time. But some of these courses may be capped, and not every student who preregisters for a class may get in.”

Cadence Hardenbergh ’11, a CEP committee member, said that the CEP is working toward understanding and alleviating the over-enrollment frustration. “I think that the CEP is still wrapping its head around this problem and trying to figure out what exactly it encompasses and how widespread it is,” Hardenbergh said.

Dean Bolton, who also sits on the CEP, affirmed that the committee’s first task is to understand the problem. “We’ve been trying to look at registration patterns to see whether it is the case that students are having an increasingly difficult time getting the courses they want, and if so, why. For example, are students distributing themselves across the curriculum in patterns very different from those in the past?” Bolton said. “We’re trying to understand what’s driving that and what might be done. It is the case that more courses are capped than they used to be, but students expressed that they want to take a course guaranteed not to go over certain size.”

According to Hardenbergh, the CEP does not currently have a specific proposal for solutions to the over-enrollment issue but is choosing to focus its efforts on examining different aspects of the issue and gathering information to best address the issue in the future. “It’s really hard because everyone wants to get into each class they want, and everyone also wants small classes,” shes said. “These two things will fundamentally conflict.”

Students like Deal, however, who have been dropped from the same class multiple times, believe that this conflict causes students to miss out on courses that they consider important to their liberal arts education.

“I have essentially lost my chance to take a course in a subject I absolutely love but decided not to major in because the course size is so limited,” Deal said.

Jeannette Rivera ’12, an anthropology major, has also experienced difficulty enrolling in an art class at the College. She has been dropped from drawing courses every semester since her freshman fall.

“I was finally accepted into drawing this semester after a lot of begging,” Riviera said. “I signed up for art as a potential major, but because I was dropped so many times I remained focused on my other interest, anthropology [as a major]. I understand that departments are being underfunded and that we want to keep class sizes to a minimum, but I think that students should come first,” she said.

Students are not alone in their frustration, as it is professors who face the difficult task of contending with the over-enrolled classes. According to Laurie Heatherington, professor of psychology, the combination of student interest and course caps contributes to over-enrollment. She added that interest in psychology as a major has increased across the country.
However, Heatherington added that there are positive facets of the system. “I think it’s good that we don’t have a first-come first-served system of registration,” she said. “In the current system, everyone can indicate their interest in a course by signing up for it, and then the professors and departments can manage enrollments. Ideally, [professors] can explain to students their individual or department policies about [enrollment].”

Heatherington added that the system provides benefits for professors and departments. “We can keep waiting lists, and we can compile information from across the semesters and years about who was dropped, how big the over-enrollments were,” she said. “This allows departments to make decisions about future course offerings.”