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Cut, close, balance

Topics/tags: Registration, Grinnell, rambly, things I thought I’d written

As I’ve mentioned previously, Grinnell has an atypical registration system for returning students: During an eleven-day period in the prior semester that we call preregistration, students and their advisors agree upon the courses that students would prefer to take the next semester and then the students register for those courses. Unlike some schools, which employ a first-come, first-served process, or variants thereof, we allow all interested students to register for courses, even if there are many many more people registered for a course than the course can handle [1].

What happens next? Something we call the cut, close, balance process. That is, we have to figure out how to deal with over-enrolled courses and some other situations. The process involves decisions, negotiations, and actions by individual faculty members, by departments, by the Registrar’s office, and even by the Dean. Let’s see if I can get the process down.

We’ll start with what may be the simplest part of the process: balancing. When there are multiple sections of the same course, a department may ask the Registrar’s office to balance those sections. There are many reasons to balance sections. Balancing levels out faculty workload and, in doing so, gives students similar experiences [2]. That’s not to say that balancing is necessarily fair. I’ve heard someone note that Students pay a lot to attend Grinnell; if there’s room in a section, they should be able to take classes at the time they want, with the faculty members they want [3,4]. In balancing sections, the Registrar’s office only pays attention to other courses, so students may be balanced into a time that conflicts with work, athletic, or other obligations [5]. Some clever students avoid that case by putting a placeholder, such as a half-credit PE course, in the other slot [6].

What about over-enrolled courses that don’t have another section, or those in which the total enrollment across sections exceeds the combined capacity? That’s when things get complicated.

In some cases, cutting becomes the decision of an individual faculty member. They may ask students for their rationales for taking the course. They may look at the major of students, preserving students who likely need the course for the major. They may prioritize seniors, who will not get another chance to take the course [7]. They may prioritize prospective majors or concentrators. If there’s still work to do after that, or if they want the cuts to be fair, they can also ask the Registrar’s office to randomly cut students from the course. Some faculty members may also choose to allow their course to over-enroll by a few students [8,9].

In departments with limited class slots, cutting may end up being more of a departmental decision. For example, if all the 300-level courses are over-enrolled, a department may start by looking at all of the 300-level enrollments to make sure that all majors get at least one 300-level course; it seems more appropriate to cut a student with two 300-level courses from one of those courses than to cut a student with only one 300-level course. Departments might also look at broader issues, such as the total number of courses a student has taken in the department, or whether there are courses with open slots that could meet the same requirement. Econ avoids this issue in its seminars by having a pre-preregistration process that assigns Econ majors to seminars.

At times, a department may be able to look at its preregistration numbers and find a way to cancel or combine courses with lower enrollments to free up a faculty member to teach another section of an over-enrolled course. Those changes can often involve multiple steps. For example, we might combine sections 1 and 2 of course 1, freeing instructor A to teach instructor B’s section of course 2, which frees instructor B to teach another section of course 3, which was over-enrolled.

There’s also an informal process for adding sections. If a department has a faculty member on an expandable contract, such as a senior lecturer or someone in a shared position, the department can ask the Dean to pay for another section. Similarly, if a department can quickly identify someone willing to teach a single course, the department can ask the Dean to pay for another section. There are also some variants of these processes, including some with no cost that still require Deanly approval [10].

All of this has to happen relatively quickly. We get the class lists on Friday morning. Our changes are due by the following Wednesday. That’s not a lot of time, particularly if one has to negotiate with the Dean [11]. The Registrar’s office then has a little more than a week to do all of the work (e.g., balancing sections). Students then get notified of the changes and, if necessary, meet with their advisors to work out alternatives to the courses from which they were cut.

I’ve mentioned balancing and cutting. What about close? Courses from which we cut students are marked as closed. That means that no one else can register for them, even if someone drops the course. I believe that courses with only a few open slots also get marked as closed. That way, when we reach the followup process, faculty have some control over who gets the few remaining slots in those courses.

CCB [12] is not an ideal process. For example, students who get cut from a course in the CCB process generally have a much more limited range of classes to select afterwards. And there are some ways to manipulate the system [14]. But it seems like a fairer process than, say, first-come, first-served, which is affected by everything from advisor availability to financial circumstances.

There’s another side to the CCB process; handling low-enrollment classes. What happens when a course has an especially low enrollment during preregistration? That’s not an issue I’ve ever encountered in my courses [16], but I know it happens. I’ve heard that the Dean generally asks departments to cancel courses that have an enrollment of fewer than six students, unless those courses are required for the major. But I don’t know what those faculty members are asked to teach instead. I guess if it’s a low-enrolled fall course, they could be asked to teach an additional spring course. But they can’t necessarily teach another section of a high-enrollment course in the same department. For example, if, for some reason, we had too-low enrollment in CSC-207, there’s no way that I could teach a section of our over-enrolled CSC-213. I guess some shifting might be possible (You teach a section of intro, which frees someone else to teach the needed course), but that seems both complicated and anger-inducing. Plus, when I look at the subjects of some of those courses [17], it strikes me that they should be more popular, and possibly will be once students are cut from other courses. Cutting courses sounds complicated. I’m glad I’m not Dean.

Postscript: I know some parents ask When the demand for a course is higher than the number of slots, why not just make the course larger? As a parent [18], I understand the desire for our students to be able to take the courses they want. But there are a lot of reasons to stick to course caps. One has to do with classroom space. Many classes, particularly lab-based classes, don’t have physical room for more students. Another has to do with class structure. A discussion-based class will feel very different with twenty students than with sixteen. Some disciplines, particularly languages, have caps that their professional societies recommend. Faculty members have limited time for meeting with students individually and for providing feedback; a larger class means less feedback per student. We also don’t want our faculty members to burn out. Larger classes put more demand, and unequal demand, on the faculty who teach them. So, although we hate to cut students from classes, it’s necessary.

[1] See, for example, the fifty-six people enrolled in section 2 of ART-111, Introduction to the Studio, which has a cap of fifteen.

[2] If we did not balance sections, a student in a low-enrollment section would likely get more individual attention than a student in a high-enrollment section.

[3] In courses like BIO-150 and ENG-120, which have different topics for different sections, students should also be able to pick the topic.

[4] This comment does not apply when we balance students out of over-enrolled sections.

[5] I’ve heard rumor of an athlete who got balanced into a Friday afternoon lab, creating multiple conflicts.

[6] I don’t recommend this practice. I just report.

[7] For courses that are offered every-other year, third-year students are also unlikely to take the course.

[8] We try to choose course caps that are appropriate for the subject and the structure of the course, so over-enrolling should be a rare option, one that we realize may compromise course quality.

[9] Our Chemistry department is notable for its willingness to allow courses to over-enroll to meet demand. And I recently saw data that suggests that I’ve allowed my sections of CSC-151 to over-enroll so much that the average enrollment in the course is higher than the capacity of the course.

[10] For example, one year in which I was chair, I had a faculty member willing to teach an extra section of an over-enrolled two-credit course with the understanding that they would only teach a 4.5-course teaching load the following year.

[11] I recall one particularly harrowing year in which I made an early request to the Dean but did not hear back until 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

[12] cut, close, balance

[14] I’ve already mentioned the strategy of putting a placeholder course in to prevent being switched to another section. Some students will also enroll in two high-demand courses to increase their odds in getting into at least one. The latter strategy means that demand may appear higher than it is. For example, suppose thirty students wanted either Underwater Basket Weaving or Clap for Credit [15], but not both, and that each has a capacity of fifteen students. If all students followed the strategy, then it would appear that the demand for each course is such that it requires a second section, even though we could make do with only one section of each. In spite of this problem, I understand why students use this strategy; if they enroll only in Underwater Basket Weaving and get cut, it may seem like no slots will be available in Clap for Credit.

[15] Both are traditional fictional classes

[16] CSC-326 often under-enrolls. But since it’s a two-credit course with a cap of six that accrues no teaching credit, it’s in a separate situation than most courses.

[17] No, I will not identify particular low-enrollment courses.

[18] And as an advisor.

Version 1.0 released 2018-11-18.

Version 1.0.1 of 2019-11-17.