Student survey shows frustration with 3-2, pre-registration

Josh Goodman

Nearly 250 students, largely frustrated by reduced course offerings as a result of the upcoming 3-2 teaching schedule, larger classes and a 16-credit pre-registration cap for fall 2010, expressed their concerns in a recent ASWC survey on pre-registration.

Faculty and administrators, meanwhile, are pointing to statistics indicating that the effect of 3-2 on pre-registration has been minimal.

Faculty approved a 3-2 teaching load in November, reducing the number of courses full-time faculty teach from six to five per academic year and reducing the number of course sections per semester by 17 percent. The number of courses offered will only fall by seven percent because many courses will continue to be offered but with fewer sections than in previous years. Class sizes will be bigger, too. Director of Institutional Research Neal Christopherson said that despite fewer course sections, there will be only 200 fewer total seats available in classes in the fall 2010 semester compared to fall 2009.

“I’m hesitant to agree to the premise that people had more trouble registering than in previous years, but I certainly believe that people were more sensitive to it because of 3-2,” Christopherson said, noting the relative stability in the total number of seats available.

Additionally, the 16-credit cap was created, independent from the 3-2 switch, in response to difficulties with first-year registration last year. The idea is that by preventing students from signing up for an overload and then dropping courses, more seats will be available for first-years. Continuing students will be allowed to register for additional courses once first-years have registered.

“The problem here is the tug and pull phenomenon,” said Registrar Ron Urban. “There are some students who say ‘why can’t we add one or two credits’? The opposing force is that returning students sign up for a lot of classes they don’t take . . . By restricting the enrollment cap to 16, the hope was that some spaces would be left for new students.”

The ASWC survey found the overwhelming majority of respondents were frustrated with the changes in pre-registration and course offerings for the fall 2010 semester. Only 9.9 percent of survey respondents said they experienced no difficulty during the pre-registration process while 70.3 percent found the pre-registration process moderately, very or extremely difficult.

ASWC provided student responses from the survey to The Pioneer on the condition that the respondents not be quoted.

Among the most frequent survey comments were frustration with the 16-credit cap: particularly in regards to wanting to take SSRA and other activity credits, larger class sizes and the lack of electronic waitlists. Other frequent comments included  the fact that tuition is increasing at a time when course sections are decreasing and class sizes are increasing and the inability to get into appropriate classes in one’s major. Environmental Studies majors were especially vocal about difficulties with the number of classes in their concentrations offered and the ability to get into enough courses from both the Environmental Studies department and their other chosen department.

“We’re really worried that [3-2 and the 16-credit cap are] seriously going to affect the quality of the Whitman experience,” said junior Ombudsman and Vice President-elect John Loranger, who created the survey. “We’re just hoping that the faculty and administration understand the gravity of the situation from the student perspective.”

Furthermore, results from this survey came from a far larger group of students than most ASWC surveys. Two hundred thirty-eight students had filled out the survey, released Sunday May 2, by Wednesday, May 5.

“I’ve done a million surveys in my time at ASWC and it’s like pulling teeth to get people to take them,” said senior Vice President and Student Affairs Chair Jordan Clark. “This is one of the few surveys we’ve done where the response has been enormous and passionate, which indicates that something needs to be done immediately.”

In response to student concerns, ASWC is attempting to get an agenda item on this Friday’s academic affairs committee meeting.

“[We want] a clear, documented, prioritized commitment to making new faculty hires and . . . a continued dialogue and greater transparency between the faculty and ASWC,” said ASWC President Nadim Damluji, who also hoped that an explanation of the 3-2 change to students and an official survey from the registrar would come from this and other discussions.

While ASWC officials expressed frustration at the fact that they have not been guaranteed the chance to discuss registration concerns at the academic affairs committee meeting, President George Bridges noted that there has been student involvement since the beginning of the process.

“Recently, Andrea Dobson, our chair of the faculty, and I attended a town hall meeting on this and other subjects where students [voiced] their thoughts and concerns on this issue,” he said in an e-mail. “Student representatives will continue to sit on trustee committees considering the five course load and will have many opportunities to voice their opinions and concerns. If students have other ideas about how they would like to be involved, I am certainly open to hearing their suggestions.”

Several years of record admissions without creating many new faculty lines has also played a role in the increasing difficulties of registration.

“I’ve been looking at historical data: The times when we seem to have the biggest trouble finding spaces for the incoming students are when we have these larger student bodies,” said Christopherson.

While there were 1,515 students this year: “an exceptionally large student body” according to Christopherson: the college is projecting that there will be 1,540 students this fall. That’s noticeably more than the 1,489 during the 2007-08 academic year, for which current juniors were first-years. The student to faculty ratio has also inched upwards from 9.5:1 to 10:1 since then, suggesting that there has been more difficulty getting into popular classes even before the 3-2 switch.

Provost and Dean of Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn noted that he and Christopherson are working to add sections for the most in-demand classes.

“Where possible, I will add new sections of courses for which the demand is greatest,” he said in an e-mail. “I will do so, of course, only when I am able to identify instructors who are fully qualified to teach courses at Whitman.”

Kaufman-Osborn added that some departments have one-year visiting professor positions that have not been filled and did not allow students to pre-register for classes by those professors, restricting the number of offerings in those departments for the time being.

Students are still ripe with questions.

One survey respondent wondered whether the change would still allow for an exploration of a variety of interests, as liberal arts schools typically encourage, since many of the departments they wanted to explore had few open seats.

Another noted the dilemma many peers faced in getting into organic chemistry; two sections will be offered in fall 2010 compared to three in fall 2009. Organic chemistry is a requirement for chemistry and biology majors as well as pre-med students.

Several more students wondered why SSRA and other non-academic credits counted towards the 16-credit cap, since it was impossible to sign up for such classes if one was taking four four-credit classes but impractical to drop a four-credit class to take a one-credit class.

Urban said that he felt that, in the end, things would work out for students.

“I don’t want to minimize the difficulties people are experiencing, but I think a certain amount of this is the anxieties of the unknown,” he said. “There’s a change about to happen, and there could be a negative impact. I think people tend to overemphasize the magnitude of the negative impact. That’s not to say that there won’t be any growing pains [but] I don’t see any evidence for major problems right now.”