(TIM BRINTON / NEWSART)
by Ruby Samuels
Last Tuesday, I walked into class after class on the first day of my last year of college to hear the same announcement from each and every professor: the course was overbooked and students would have to drop.
Every professor added their own twist: the computer science professor said, “I don’t have to try to convince any of you to drop because at least 100 of you will disappear of your own volition once you hear what I’m about to say and get scared” ; The Spanish professor argued that it was fair for upperclassmen to be blocked from the classes that last year’s freshmen were unable register for at all; the psychology professor who I emailed in desperation replied with apathy- even if I am a senior and a transfer student with a science requirement to fulfill, I’d go through the lottery system like everyone else, from which she would randomly select 1 or 2 from the waitlist of hundreds to enroll in her class.
My experience may have felt stressful but the Ivy League doesn’t compare to the real problems that students (particularly transfers) face at public universities. For the past couple of decades, public and community colleges have been growing their freshman classes exponentially without growing their faculty and course list at the same time. Classes are overbooked, dormitories are overcrowded and transportation is slow.
One study in 2014 found that 20% of community college graduates were unable to register for necessary classes and 33% said that they were unable to register for classes that they wanted to take. Those students often don’t graduate on time: according to the same study, just 19% of non-flagship public university or college students graduate on time, while the same is true for 36% of students from flagship research public universities and of the 580 plus public four-year institutions in America, just 50 have graduation rates above 50%.
For transfer students like me, it’s even worse- because there is a cap on the number of transferrable credits, expensive college courses become useless to a transfer student’s degree. About 60% of community college students change colleges and on average, $600 million is lost annually when only two courses per transfer student are not accepted by their new school. This makes the stakes even higher for transfer students to get into the necessary classes and graduate without having to take on more costly time in school.
This problem is not new, even to Columbia University. A Columbia Spectator article from 1999 reported the following: “with every new influx of first-years, students find that there is standing room only in their introductory and intermediate-level courses.This increased number of students is complicated by the fact that few departments have made additions to their faculty to make up for a larger number of students in classes.”
However, in the case of Ivy League schools like Columbia, diversity, rather than overcrowding, is a top priority. That means actually trying to recruit more students, from a broader range of backgrounds, in order to provide opportunities to students who aren’t privileged by the current student body’s median family income (at Columbia it is $150,000) and increase the percentage of students from poor families who go on to find socio-economic success (right now at Columbia, that percentage is 3.2%). With a more diverse student population, though, comes less money for the university and the need for more students overall to balance it out.
The fact remains that Ivy League schools have exponentially more resources to deal with overcrowding than public universities and community colleges. Over this past summer, the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs for the University of California Irvine sent a letter to the incoming freshman class saying the following:
“You recently received a letter from our admissions team regarding your status at the University of California, Irvine. I understand that the notification may have been disappointing and frightening.”
This was in response to the reaction that the incoming students had to a notification that UCI were rescinding the acceptance letters of students in the overbooked class, like airline passengers who are expected to miss a flight because they’re stuck in traffic. After a student petition and appeals process, the Vice Chancellor informed the freshmen that they would all be admitted this year: “No acceptance will be withdrawn due to over-enrollment, despite external reports to the contrary.” Taking all of the accepted students may be the ethical road to take, but what about the classes, dormitories and transportation systems that will overbooked. The problem of overcrowding and over admitting needs to be solved before acceptance letters go under threat of being rescinded in the first place.
Over-enrollment means overbooked dorms in addition to classes. In 2015, Southern Utah University encouraged local residents and employees to house the overflow of freshmen; Loyola University put students in the dorms of it’s rival school, Tulane University, to handle their crowded campus last year; Scripps College moved 30 freshmen students to dorms at Harvey Mudd College; and 134 Gonzaga University freshmen were housed at the Red Lion River Inn. This year, 400 Georgia State University students had to stay at the Sheraton hotel. The Christian Science Monitor reported that “It’s not uncommon for a small college to get creative when campus housing fills up, sending first-year students to such dorm alternatives as local hotels, rival schools or even a water park.”
Why are so many colleges experiencing overcrowding? One reason may be a reliance on adjunct, rather than full-time, tenured professors. This might mean that there are faculty shortages at the same time as there are enrollment booms. Another reason could be that public institutions of higher education struggle to meet their budget requirements, and need to supplement their federal income with a bigger number of tuition-paying students. Whatever the reason, though, students should not have to experience logistical problems that prevent them from succeeding to the best of their ability because of bureaucracy.