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First-Year Registration, Fall 2021 (#1163)

Topics/tags: Grinnell, long, rambly, postscripted

We’ve just gotten through registration for incoming first-year students (and a few others). It’s always a complicated process at Grinnell. It was more so than normal this year. Particularly since some parents on the Grinnell Parents and Families Facebook page seem to want some more information [1], I thought I’d attempt to provide a bit of perspective.

Note: As you can tell from the disclaimer at the bottom of the page, this document represents my personal perspective and is not the official stated position of Grinnell College.

Let’s start with some background about the process.

Fifty years ago [2], Grinnell’s faculty voted to do away with general education requirements to move to a model in which students work carefully with faculty members to design individualized curricula, providing each student with a customized liberal arts education. At the time, the faculty called it the no requirements curriculum. For most of the past fifty years, it’s been called the open curriculum. That’s also the term that, other institutions—say, Hamilton and Brown—use for their similar curriculum. Since the curriculum is not truly open; it requires negotiation and design, we more recently moved to the longer, but perhaps more accurate, individually advised curriculum.

Doing without general education requirements makes a lot of things more difficult. If you know that every student is going to take, say, mathematics and a foreign language, you can often pre-set parts of each student’s curriculum. As importantly, you have a clear notion of what the demand for courses will be. And you can probably do advising remotely: You have one spare slot; what would you like to take?

We can’t do that. We need to help students get some sense of a liberal arts education before they select courses for their first semester. And that works best in person. Otherwise, you get those students who think it’s okay to take only science courses in their first semester, or students who think they should take no science courses in their four years of college. So we have students meet with their advisors during orientation, to work things out, and then select and get assigned classes in a relatively short time frame.

That leads us to the registration process for first-years.

Working closely with their advisor, each student fills out a form that expresses their plans and hopes for their first semester. Since there is limited room in each class (after all, small classes are one of the hallmarks of a Grinnell education), we’ve developed a complex but comparatively fair process for registration.

We do registration in three rounds. In the first round, we randomly order the students and give each student the highest-priority class that remains in their registration plan for that round. In the second round, we reverse the order from the first round and give each student the highest-priority course that remains in their list of second-round courses, paying attention to time conflicts. We do something similar for the third round. I believe the people who run the process try to do natural shifting to fit things into place.

Even in good years, it’s an imperfect process. Students don’t always get the three classes they want. Some students don’t even get their first choice from the first round [3]. But that should be okay. Students should be getting a broad-based education in their first year and most majors are designed so that you can start them in your second or third semester. I teach CS, which has a fairly long chain of successor courses, and you can start CS as late as your third semester and still take a semester abroad [4].

This year, the process was even more imperfect than normal. There are always a few students for whom the third round is a failure; either none of the classes they’ve listed are available or all of the available ones conflict with their choices from the first two rounds. This year, there were over one-hundred students in that situation. Worse yet, there were almost no slots available for them to switch to. There’s a huge difference between We’ll find another course for you to take from a large set of offerings and Choose one of these five [5] courses.

So our Dean and other administrators scurried to solve the problem. As I understand it, they chose a two-pronged approach. First, they decided to over-enroll most courses open to first-year students by two or three students [6]. They also found ways to open up a few additional sections for first-years, presumably by cutting other courses or convincing a few SFS or part-time faculty to teach more. Some faculty over-enrolled by even more than that. For example, I now have thirty-three students in CSC-151-01 [7], even though the course is nominally capped at twenty-four. I’ve taught it to as many as forty-two students, and I should be getting a second class mentor [8], so the students and I will survive and perhaps even thrive.

But we shouldn’t have reached this situation. So, what went wrong? I don’t know for sure; I’m not anywhere near the inside of the process. So I’m just going to draw on my too-many years at Grinnell and hypothesize. There are (or were) a lot of factors at play.

We have a larger-than-normal entering class. Many students deferred admission because of the pandemic. I expect that it didn’t seem quite fair to make it that much harder for students applying this year to gain admission. So we have a particularly large entering class. You can tell that, in part, because most sections of Tutorial are at fourteen students rather than twelve [9] and because we’ve once again ended up converting some doubles to triples in the dorms [10].

We have fewer students than normal studying off campus this semester. Some students still aren’t able to study abroad. Some study-away programs have been canceled or postponed. For example, what looked to be an awesome ACM [11] Newberry Library Chicago program was canceled. I also expect that many students who could have studied off campus chose not to because they missed being on campus and seeing their friends. In any case, more returning students means fewer slots for incoming students.

During most of President Kington’s tenure, there was a cap on the number of tenure-line positions. I’ve written before about why I thought that cap damaged the institution. I argued with President Kington about the cap, both in public and in private. I am happy to report that President Harris has noted that we need to address what she refers to as deferred maintenance of the faculty and has convinced the Trustees to fund more tenure lines. But that doesn’t help us for this year.

We may have fewer faculty than normal this year. I expect that some faculty members delayed leaves from the pandemic until this year, particularly those whose research requires them to be elsewhere. A valued campus leader passed away unexpectedly this summer. Another tenured faculty member resigned in the middle of the summer. There are likely others who I do not know about.

No one did the predictive analytics to realize that we’d be in this situation. We spent the summer without a Registrar. Our previous Registrar left in late spring, before graduation. Our new Registrar started in late summer. I believe our Interim Registrar returned to the faculty in mid-summer. And while we have an amazing set of folks in the Registrar’s office [12], they had been incredibly overworked during the pandemic. Or maybe they noticed and others ignored their worries.

Of course, the Open [15] Curriculum makes predictive analytics hard. Changes in the student body and the world can have significant effects on what courses students choose. There was a time when Introductory Philosophy filled rapidly; I wish it still did. And, while Introductory CS has always been close to full, it’s only been the past few years that it’s filled so quickly, even as we’ve added additional sections.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we do any substantive predictive analytics for student course demand or, if we do, we don’t make significant use of it. At least I haven’t seen any such information, even when I’ve requested or suggested it. For example, having students enter their four-year plans in our academic planning system, rather than on paper, would give us a broad sense of what students are planning.

There are philosophical differences about how important it is for students to get their top choices in their first semester. As I noted earlier, most majors are designed so that students can start in their first, second, or even third semester. Hence, most of us don’t consider it essential that students get exactly the courses they want in their first semester, even though students and their parents often feel otherwise [16]. I have the most knowledge about my department, Computer Science. When I started at Grinnell, the vast majority of CS majors took their first CS course in their second semester. These days, About half of our CS majors take their first CS course in their second semester. As importantly, every student who tries to register for CSC-151 in their first year gets CSC-151 in their first year [17]. I suppose that we might eventually reach the level of demand that we can’t sustain that guarantee, but I have always done what I could to achieve that goal. I think my colleagues feel similarly.

I must admit that the philosophical differences can run even deeper. I have heard some campus leaders say that they don’t consider it important for students to get the majors they want. I believe those folks are in a small minority, but they do exist and they have had impacts on some allocation decisions.

There are philosophical differences in what students should take in their first semester. Some students come to Grinnell believing that they should be able to choose exactly what they want. But course selection is a guided discussion, and your advisor can say no. For example, I cannot imagine a situation in which I would allow a first-year student to take three science courses in their first semester. When I teach Tutorial (and therefore advise first-year students), I often make students write essays defending choices I consider less than ideal, such as students who choose not to continue or undertake the study of a foreign language. I will also note that many faculty (and, fortunately, many students [18]) consider the first semester an ideal time for students to try something outside of their normal comfort zone.

Hmmm. I suppose those last two issues had less of an impact on the insufficient number of slots. But they did have an impact on students’ (and their parents’) feelings that there were insufficiently many slots in the courses they wanted to take.

So, what should you conclude from all this?

Most importantly, It’s okay if a student doesn’t get all the courses they want in their first semester; they’ll get other great courses and they will generally get the courses they want somewhere during their time at Grinnell. I know that it doesn’t necessarily feel that way, and I know that there are exceptions, but in my twenty-plus years at Grinnell, I’ve seen most students do perfectly well even if they don’t start with the exact set of courses they wanted.

It’s also clear to me that the pandemic had many direct and indirect effects (separate from health effects). It affected the number of students and faculty on campus. It likely affected our energy and time to think carefully about these potential issues. We are not yet back to normal.

As that suggests, this year was the exception, not the rule. We normally have enough sections for first-year students to get a reasonable set of courses and, as importantly, to shift their schedule around if they find their initial selection is not quite right.

But we can do better. As I noted above, and as I’ve noted in the past, Grinnell needs to do better predictive analytics about course demand and use those data. We have a new Registrar. We may have a new registration system. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity.

I hope what I’ve written helps. I know it helped me to analyze some of the issues at play.

Postscript: From what I can tell, Catherine Ashton, our new Registrar, was thrust into a very difficult situation and handled that situation with wisdom and grace. We are lucky to have hired her. And, as always, I appreciate the hard and thoughtful work of the amazing folks at the Registrar’s Office.

Registrar Ashton also dealt well with her first snarky email from SamR. I appreciate that. I’d say that I regret sending it, but I learned things from her response, and so I find that it may have been the right choice.

Postscript: Parents sometimes ask Why won’t a faculty member just over-enroll a course by one or two students? Students sometimes ask the same question. But it’s rare that only one or two students want to add a full course. Where does adding stop? And how do we avoid implicit or explicit biases in deciding who to add? Many of us find it best to just stick to our predetermined course caps.

Postscript: Did I promise to discuss how CS deals with its introductory course? I think so. Here goes.

At current staffing levels, counting both tenure-line and term faculty [19], we can offer five or six sections of CSC-151, Functional Problem Solving, Grinnell’s primary first course in computer science. CSC-151 is intended to serve both prospective majors and students who are just taking CS to expand their ways of thinking. Almost all students start in CSC-151, even those with prior CS experience.

Because CSC-151 is a workshop-style class (collaborative, active learning), we cap the course at twenty-four students. Six sections each year permit us to serve 144 students. We generally offer three sections in the fall and three sections in the spring. In part, that’s because it seems to accommodate demand well. In part, that’s because it works well to balance staffing.

For the fall, we try to leave about 48/72 slots for incoming first-year students. We know that that’s not enough for the demand. But we also know that it’s fine if students don’t take CS their first semester [20]. In some years, such as this year, all of the other slots are taken by students entering their third semester.

Both achieving and retaining those 48 slots is hard. We usually need to cut returning students to leave that many slots open. And we have to hold firm despite the dozens of emails we get asking to claim one of those slots. I know that students are unhappy to be cut. I know that students are unhappy to be unable to add the course. But our staffing only permits so much.

As I noted earlier, first-year students get top priority for the spring. We’ve never had more first-year students interested than slots available. Or if we have, we’ve let them all in. In most years, those 72 slots are enough for all interested students, and we don’t have to cut anyone. But it’s always close. We need all 72 slots. Sometimes we expand a little so that we don’t cut two or three students. Sometimes, we have only 70 students. But it seems to be the right number, at least at present. Once in a while, we have to cut the fourth-years taking the class.

Should we do things differently? I worry that if we switched to, say, four sections in the fall and two in the spring, we’d be less able to serve the students who wanted to take CS after their first three semesters. Right now, we seem to be able to serve most such students [23]. And we also have room for the first-years who have friends who take CSC-151 in the fall and share their awesome experiences [24].

I’m not an economist. I’m not even married to one. But I expect there are other factors at play that seem to ensure that the demand for CSC-151 is fairly close to the supply?

It may matter that students already know that the demand for CSC-151 is comparatively high. Some students might not even try if they worry that they are going to get cut [25]. Does it also make a difference that CSC-151 has a reputation of being a time-consuming class? Perhaps that keeps demand lower. I’m not sure. Does it make a difference that CSC-151 is a course that emphasizes computational thinking, rather than practical programming skills for particular disciplines? Again, I’m not sure. If we had more staffing [26], we might discuss offering a course that emphasizes practical programming and how it would fit into the major [28].

Again, I hope that what I’ve written provides a bit of context to the choices we make and why there are not enough slots for all interested students to take CSC-151 in the fall.

Postscript: We did allow an extra fourteen or so students into CSC-151 this fall. We’ll see how that affects demand in the spring.

Postscript: I’ve made some claims about what we’ve always been able to do or never had to do. This past spring’s registration (for fall) should probably have taught me to stop making such claims. As far as I know, we’ve never before had to cut seniors from required courses. We had to for this semester. Don’t worry, though, they’ll be able to take the courses in the spring.

Did I mention we need more CS faculty?

[1] And have expressed some reasonable frustrations.

[2] Plus or minus a year.

[3] I am told that introductory CS fills midway through the first round. Long-term readers know why we don’t provide more slots for first-years in CS. I’ll probably include some more details later in this musing.

[4] Starting later requires doubling up CS courses, but that’s generally not a problem.

[5] Five is a made-up number. I don’t know the actual count. I just know that it was small.

[6] I’d swear I heard one or two, and the spreadsheet I first received seems to suggest that, but I see the notes from the faculty meeting say two or three, and my chairs heard the same thing.

[7] CSC-151, Functional Problem Solving, is the primary introductory course in Computer Science, intended for both prospective majors and for students who just want to learn some CS as part of their broader education.

[8] No, not a second-class mentor.

[9] I believe that’s even after we added at least two extra sections.

[10] That could also be because there was less demand for off-campus housing.

[11] Associated Colleges of the Midwest, not Association of Computing Machinery.

[12] I seem to recall that we are now supposed to refer to the Registrar’s Office as EASE [14].

[14] It turns out that I’m wrong or perhaps misinformed. EASE is a separate committee. Enrollment and something or other.

[15] Individually Advised.

[16] As a parent of one college-aged child and two college graduates, I understand and empathize with the frustration of not having your child get the courses they want. But they adapt.

[17] I’m pretty sure that every undeclared student who has pre-enrolled in CSC-151 in their third semester has gotten into CSC-151.

[18] At least after they discuss the idea with their faculty member.

[19] If I did not count the term faculty, we would not be able to support the number of majors we have and would probably be down to three or four sections of CSC-151.

[20] I realize that there are some counter-arguments. For example, some students may rely on CS in their first semester to get a winter-break internship [21]. Personally, I worry that students from groups who are underrepresented in the field may take their failure to get into the course in their first semester as a sign that they should pursue a different field. If we had more staffing [22], perhaps we could try offering more intro sections in the fall.

[21] Those are rare.

[22] Hint, hint.

[23] Well, sometimes not the seniors.

[24] It may have been my most time-consuming course, and my instructor made far too many jokes, but CS expanded my mind in amazing new ways. You should take it, too.

[25] As I noted above, I worry about the effects of those from groups who are underrepresented in the field.

[26] I realize that I’m a bit of a broken record [27] on the staffing topic.

[27] I was going to explain vinyl records and turntables, but then I realized that they are hip again and students probably get the idea of broken records.

[28] That seems like a good topic for a future essay.

Version 1.0 released 2021-08-28.

Version 1.1 of 2021-08-30.