On Jan. 14, the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) released a memorandum regarding over-enrollment and the increasing number of students who have been dropped from courses in recent years.
According to CEP Chair and Professor of Art Guy Hedreen, the impetus for the committee’s investigation was “faculty and students’ reports about how difficult the first two weeks of the semester are for students to find classes and faculty to get their enrollment settled.” The CEP’s report fo-cused primarily on detailing the problem at hand as well as enumerating specific strategies that faculty might employ in order to make the enroll-ment process easier on students, as well as suggestions for improving the course registration system.
Recent increases in over-enrollment
According to the CEP report, 668 students were dropped from courses following pre-registration this fall, while 874 students were dropped last spring. The committee claims that approximately one out of 10 pre-registration students across all courses is dropped each semester. In contrast, only 293 students were dropped on average each term throughout the 1990s.
Students are also taking advantage of the multi-period registration proc-ess: Only 58 percent of all total registrations take place during pre-registration, while 16 percent occur during mid-registration and 26 percent during the two-week drop-add period at the beginning of the semester.
While over-enrollment has become a problem across many academic departments, the issue is most prevalent in a few specific disciplines. Two-thirds of all dropped students are concentrated in five departments: English totals 25 percent of students dropped following pre-registration, while psychology accounts for 17 percent and philosophy, history and leadership studies for eight percent each. Other Div. II classes make up 22 percent of all dropped students, while other Div. I classes add an additional seven percent. Students dropped from Div. III classes amount to only five percent of all dropped students each term.
The CEP attributes these problems to two main causes: an increase in enrollment caps across a number of courses and the nature of the pre-registration system, which allows students to sign up for any class they would like regardless of enrollment caps.
Major increases in capped courses
The report states that while capped courses were limited to approximately 40 percent of all courses 15 years ago, 80 percent of all courses are now capped. This increase is partially due to the tutorial program and the writing intensive course requirement. Tutorial classes are capped at 10 students each, while courses must include fewer than 20 students in order to be considered writing intensive.
However, these two types of courses do not make up the majority of capped classes at the College. Out of a total of 321 capped courses from 2005 to the present, nearly 200 of these courses do not fall into the category of tutorial or writing intensive. This phenomenon can be attributed mostly to teaching preferences. In its exploration of the issue, the CEP found that professors across Div. I and II prefer to teach smaller classes of approximately 25 students or fewer in order to facilitate meaningful class discussion and focus on more writing within courses. This teaching philosophy has led to a staggering increase in the number of capped courses, which in turn have forced students out of classes much more often than in the past.
The notably small number of students dropped from Div. III classes is explained primarily by the almost complete absence of caps in math and science courses. In the case of courses that are most effectively taught through lectures, labs and exams, as is the case with the majority of Div. III classes, the problem of over-enrollment is most present in lab sections. Therefore, the issue of an excess number of students in most Div. III courses can be alleviated by increasing the number of lab sections offered at little cost to the department as a whole, according to the report.
Problems with pre-registration
Under the current pre-registration system, students are allowed to regis-ter for any four courses regardless of enrollment caps during the pre-registration period. Students create their ideal schedule, and are then informed after the fact that they have been dropped due to over-enrollment.
While there is a mid-registration period, which is intended to give students who have been dropped from courses following the closure of the pre-registration period a chance to re-register for classes, it isn’t always helpful in achieving that goal. In many cases, students remain under-enrolled in courses – that is, enrolled in less than the required number of courses – following the end of the mid-registration period for a number of different reasons, according to the CEP report. Some students may put off deciding which classes to register for until the drop-add period, while others may be enrolled in courses that use an application system to determine which students are dropped. Many of these courses’ application processes can continue not only through mid-registration but even into the drop-add period at the beginning of the semester.
Furthermore, while the College sets a deadline by which professors are required to have finished dropping students from courses, the CEP reports that approximately 12 professors miss this deadline each term. Professors who delay in informing students that they have been dropped from a course can severely harm students’ ability to register for classes, as classes close upon reaching enrollment caps during mid-registration.
Recommendations for moving forward
The CEP report recommended a number of courses of action for addressing the problem of over-enrollment. “Our primary goal was to explore the complaints we were hearing and try … to get some understanding of an enrollment system that’s actually pretty complicated, and why add-drop seemed to be a more chaotic period now than it was, say, 10 years ago,” Hedreen said. “So our primary goal was to investigate, and the primary purpose of our report is to educate people as to why there’s more over-enrollment today, why there are more dropped students, why there are more students going in and out of classes during add-drop. Our second goal was to propose a few modifications to existing practices.”
Many of the recommendations encouraged an increase in communication, both within departments and between faculty and students. The committee suggested that departments keep the lines of communication open within departments regarding enrollment caps, stating that while faculty may prefer to teach smaller sections of classes, it should be continually considered that a slightly larger class that can accommodate more students interested in taking the course may be preferable in some instances.
It was also recommended that faculty more clearly convey not only the enrollment preferences of their courses to students, but that they also help counsel dropped students in finding replacement courses.
Professors have been encouraged to begin offering ideas for other courses that may cover similar or related topics in order to help guide students through the registration process.
The CEP pointed out that issues of timing have been problematic as well. The report pushes for faculty to meet the deadline for cutting students from overenrolled courses and suggests that department chairs step in and finish making cuts if professors are unable to do so.
Furthermore, expediting the process of applying for courses by informing students via the course catalog whether or not a course has an application process may aid the process in order to give both students and professors more time. Currently a professor will typically announce an application process only after realizing a class is over-enrolled or, alternatively, will only begin accepting and reading applications during the drop-add period even if it is announced earlier in the registration process. Requiring applications for often-overenrolled courses may also help in addressing the issue. Starting this process earlier will help ensure that students are aware of whether or not they have been accepted into a course in time to avoid scrambling for a replacement class.
The committee also urged departments to considering administering placement exams earlier, both for incoming first-years and for upperclassmen. The CEP claimed that forcing first-years to sit placement exams during First Days hurts students’ chances of getting into the appropriate courses, as enrollment caps may have been reached by the time the exam results come back.
While no action has been taken on this front, the CEP also recommended that mid-registration be opened only to students dropped during pre-registration, and also made it clear that students must be made aware of the fact that pre-registration does not guarantee enrollment. Furthermore, students should only be enrolling in classes which they actually intend to take.
“There has been an increase at the College in the number of students who settle their schedules in add-drop as opposed to some earlier point in time,” Hedreen said. “It appears that mid-registration isn’t actually being utilized efficiently and effectively by students to find classes to replace the ones that they’ve been dropped from. But it’s being used by students to move in and out of classes that they’ve already pre-registered for, to move out of some and into others, and that’s really complicating the process of trying to settle enrollments early so that faculty and students know who is and who is not in a particular course.”
Hedreen cited the potential change as important for making the first two weeks of the semester a smoother, calmer period for both faculty and students alike. “The longer it takes for [the settling of schedules] to happen, the more chaos there is in add-drop. So one of our goals in making mid-registration open only to students that have been dropped is to encourage them to take advantage of this,” he said. “They won’t be competing with all of the other students at the College to get into classes that are still open – they’ll have a shot at it themselves, which perhaps will encourage more students to settle their schedules earlier rather than wait for add-drop.”