Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Same Old Dance

I was sitting in the shuttle with some students earlier, and I effectively disappeared, I think. At any rate, they (visiting the Abbey from different schools) were complaining about difficulties enrolling for the courses they wanted. Their complaints included a few choice words about their advisors and others about instructors who either haven't answered emails about letting students over-enroll (my word, not theirs) into full courses or whose answers were unsatisfactory. And they were frustrated by the numbers of courses already full by their enrollment time.

When I taught at a SLAC, we faculty folks were strongly encouraged to over-enroll students who wanted to take a course, but I don't recall it being a huge problem in my courses. (It's way more of a problem in lab courses where physical space is an issue than in the small courses I was teaching, it being a small school and everything.) There was also a sort of implied agreement that if students took and passed the courses their advisors told them to, and didn't change their majors, then they'd graduate in four years.

At Northwoods, we don't have any sort of implied agreement like that. And we have a pretty low four year graduation rate. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the contributing factors is that the school has cut course offerings pretty severely over the past ten years without cutting enrollments. This makes it difficult for some students to get the course they want, especially for general education type requirements, their first year. We mostly do okay with composition, though many students don't get to take it their first semester. Still we have very few sophomores taking it unless they failed it as a first year student.

I started wondering when this became a problem. It was a problem when I entered college in the late 70s. I remember students at my school who wanted to do anything biology related being held up because they couldn't get one of the 1200 slots in the first term of the chemistry sequence during their first semester. Since two terms of chem were prerequisites to the first biology course, and the first biology course was prerequisite to all but one other biology course (Human Sexuality being the exception), it put them behind. And for very sequential programs like the one I took, being a term behind was a serious problem.

I'm sure they did the two terms of chem thing so that they could "weed" out or scare off people who weren't actually going to get the grades to get into vet or med school, and so get them started exploring other majors. But it's a cruel way to do it.

And it doesn't make real sense pedagogically. Yes, sure, it's good to know chemistry, but the only biology type courses where I really needed to know the chemistry even a little were the ones that dealt with kidney stuff and permeable membranes and environmental toxicology. Once I figured that out, I got really suspicious of requirements for the sake or requirements.

Anyway, by the 70s, at least at my undergrad institution, people weren't necessarily getting into the courses they wanted when they wanted them. And it didn't seem like a new thing, since there were all sorts of student rumors and strategies about how to work the system.

What about you folks? How are enrollments in classes going? Are things looking over-enrolled a lot?

And do you have a sense of when it started to feel like that? Was it in the beginnings of time, or is it the result of specific decisions made by administrations?

I'm aware that I sound a little "student as consumer who should get what s/he wants" here. I understand the argument that students should take course Y for a GE requirement even though course X makes more sense for their interests. I hear it a lot, especially in certain contexts within my university. But I tend not to disagree, because Y and X, equally wonderful as they are, may not be of equal value to the student getting the education s/he wants to get.


  1. I just moved from teaching at State U to advising at Fancy U, and it is astonishing to me---basically, here, students will always get the classes they need. They don't really need to worry about it. Even when stuff looks closed, spaces open up.

    And my new colleagues don't seem to believe me when I tell them freshmen will think this is as bizarre as I do, because they did community college classes, but I think I'm right. :-) Though I should also have mentioned that they hear tales from friends, read the news, etc, and think fighting for classes is part of college.

    (Oh, and while I'm on my computer instead of phone, and thus no barrier to commenting---I'm enjoying the travelogue posts very much!)

  2. This has been a big problem my entire life (at least since I was 7) at the regional state school where my mother works. They STRONGLY recommend that people take their gen eds at community colleges over the summer to increase the chances of graduation in 4 years if they don't have AP credit.

  3. Well, yesterday a colleague told raised the enrollment cap on the capstone seminar to 45 so that all graduating seniors could take it.

  4. it was almost unthinkable at my small liberal arts college that someone would take more than 4 years to graduate. [class of 1979.] my sister graduated UCLA in 1982, in 4 years, and i do not recall trouble getting classes she needed.

    another sister attended UC berkeley, beginning in 1980 -- and for her computer science major, it was not possible to graduate in 4 years. [all her roomies with humanities majors did graduate in 4 years, though.]

    daughter is just about to graduate oregon state, after 4 years, a summer, and one last online class. they warned that students might not graduate in 4 years; but she probably would have made it if she had decided on her history major earlier, and not spent a year abroad where she couldn't finish those stray core requirements.