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Round one of registration for Fall 2023 (#1221)

Topics/tags: Registration, end-notable, long, only moderately rambly

I wrote this a few days before posting it. I don’t recall why there was a delay.

_**n.b.: Some of the data in this musing may be misstated; I was relying on what I saw on the list of course offerings, and that does not provide as accurate a picture as I expected. See the musing on round three for more details._

Here at Grinnell, we’ve just finished the first round of registration for Fall 2023. For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember, Grinnell has historically had a strange registration system. We continue to have a peculiar registration, but it’s evolved from the prior one. Here’s how it works, at least as I understand it [1].

A few things need to happen as we prepare for registration.

  • Students meet with their academic advisors to select courses for the fall. Ideally, this involves considering what areas of growth the student should emphasize and what might be missing from the student’s current liberal arts education. In addition, it will likely include the consideration of fallback courses to account for situations in which students do not get all of the courses they want.
  • The Registrar sets the course cap of each course at 100 students. That permits courses to over-enroll and eliminates the issues associated with a first-come, first-served approach [2].
  • Departments develop priority policies for each course. These policies help determine who is selected to enroll in a course and the order in which students come off the waiting list. For example, in CS, we prioritize majors for 300-level courses, in order of seniority from seniors to second-years [3]. But we also prioritize each major having at least one 300-level CS course. At the 100 level, we prioritize students with no declared major since they are prospective majors.

Then we’re on to the four rounds [4] of registration.

  • In round one, students select up to nine credits of courses. That typically represents two four-credit courses and, optionally, an additional one-credit course. One-credit courses frequently represent PE/wellness activities or music (lessons or ensembles), although other departments also offer some one-credit courses. Round one lasts for about three days.
  • After round one, the Registrar resets all courses to their intended capacities.
  • Because some courses end up with more students enrolled than the course is intended to accommodate, the Registrar spends a weekend cutting students from overenrolled courses according to the priority policies. Sometimes this is easy; sometimes, it’s hard. This year, round one closed on Friday at midnight, and the Registrar was still working on cuts at 1:30 a.m. on Monday morning [5,6]. Under the old system, the Registrar also had to balance students to other sections. That no longer happens.
  • In round two, students who were cut from classes in round one and those who neglected to register in round one are permitted to select other courses. Once again, they are capped at nine credits. Since courses are now set at their actual capacity, students know exactly what slots are available, and once they register for a course, students know that they will be in that course. Round two is broken into subrounds, with one group of students per day. First, students with only one semester left, then students with two semesters, then students with three or four semesters, then students with five or six semesters, and finally, students with seven semesters remaining [7]. In each subround, registration is first come, first served [8].
  • In round three, students register for their remaining credits, up to eighteen total credits [9]. Once again, there are subrounds based on class year, and each subround is first come, first served. Students can also add themselves to waiting lists in round three.
  • Finally, round four is an open-ended opportunity to clean up whatever is left.

Let’s consider a course I’m familiar with, CSC-207-01, Object-Oriented Problem Solving, Data Structures, and Algorithms [11]. If I recall correctly, CSC-207-01 had about 39 students registered by the end of the first day of round 1 [15]. I ended up with 41 students registered by the end of round 1. The other section of CSC-207 did not fill [16]. I didn’t pay close attention to what was happening, but I expect that some students decided it was safer to switch to the other section in round 1 rather than chance being cut from my section. My course is capped at 24, so the Registrar will cut 17 students. Given our priorities for the course, I believe that represents about 15 rising second-year students and two rising third-year students (not CS majors). There are 14 slots available in the other section. Ideally, all but three of the cut students will be able to register for the other section in round 2. However, it’s not quite that simple. For example, a rising senior who did not pre-enroll in my CSC-207 in round one can register in the other section in round two, leaving another student cut from my class without a slot. We also see an inversion of the priority registration policies for the course: Although undeclared students (rising second-years) have priority over rising third-years who are not CS majors, the rising third-years get to choose classes first and, therefore, can take slots from the rising second-years.

What happens to the three or more rising second-year students who want CSC-207 this fall but cannot get in? That’s what waitlists are for. All of them will add themselves to the wait list for at least one section, perhaps both. Then they will cross their fingers and hope that a slot opens up. Those with more cultural capital may also approach a faculty member directly. Fortunately, under the new registration model, students only come off wait lists in priority order; faculty don’t control the wait lists [17].

You may wonder why we don’t allow those three students into one of the sections. I you’re one of those three students or a parent of one of those three students, you’re almost certainly wondering why we don’t stretch class sizes. It’s complicated. In part, once you’ve opened yourself up to additional students, it’s hard to tell when to stop. The three students who need 207 have already grown to five. Small classes are also a hallmark of a Grinnell education. As we increase class sizes, we have less time to give students individual attention and burden faculty with increased work. I’ll be teaching three courses this fall, each with 24 students. If I allow three more students in each, that’s nine more students I’d work with, about the same number that take some upper-level seminars. So most of us try to stick to our course caps [18]. As someone who has let too many courses over-enroll, I also feel that the College must eventually bear some of the costs rather than just dumping them on faculty.

Whoops! The subject of this musing isn’t Grinnell’s new registration process. Rather, it’s supposed to represent my reflections on round one. That was a long introduction. I certainly wasn’t intending to write so much. Let’s move on to the reflections [19].

This semester represents the second time we’ve followed this new process. For advising purposes, I need to explore which courses fill in the first round. For equity purposes, I should share what I’ve learned.

So let’s dive in.

Do I order courses by total enrollment or by over-enrollment? I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much, at least not for those at the start.

According to either metric, the winner (loser?) is CHM-221-02, Organic Chemistry I w/lab. That class, with a scheduled capacity of 20 students, had 43 students enroll in round one. That’s twenty-three students to cut! Fortunately, there should be enough slots in the other sections, at least as far as I can tell. Chemistry is also one of the few departments that will generally over-enroll courses by a few. I see that some organic labs are over-enrolled, but I’m too lazy to explore those in detail.

Next up, at least in terms of over-enrollment, is BIO-366-01, Immunology w/lab, which over-enrolled by 20 students, with a total enrollment of 38. It looks like a bad semester for 300-level Biology courses. BIO-325-01, Fungal Biology, w/lab, over-enrolled by 8 students (total enrollment 26) and BIO-373-01, Mechanisms of Evoluation w/lab, over-enrolled by 6 students (total 24). The only open 300-level lab course I see is BIO-373-01, Ecology w/lab, with only six slots available. Over-enrolling 300-level biology courses is hard; they are supposed to be seminar-style classes, and supervising the student lab experiences requires a lot of individual work. Speaking of the lab experiences, I’m also skipping my analysis of the labs associated with these over-enrolled 300-level biology courses.

And then there’s my course. CSC-207-01, Object-Oriented Problem Solving, Data Structures, and Algorithms. 41 students enrolled, which makes it over-enrolled by 17 students. Most of those students will end up in the other section, or so I hope. There’s not another option for students coming out of CSC-161 who want to progress in the CS major, other than CSC-213, and CSC-213 is the next course on my list.

Yes, that’s right, CSC-213-01 has 39 students enrolled, making it over-enrolled by 15 students. Where will those students go? I hope some are students trying to take two CS courses; we can cut them from one, and they’ll double up another semester [20]. Some may also be able to move to CSC-341, Automata, Formal Languages, and Computational Complexity [21], which has 10 open spots or CSC-395, ST: Algorithm, Society, and Ethics, which also has 10 open spots. Why do these courses have open spots? Perhaps we tend to push our majors toward courses with multiple sections rather than courses with only one. I certainly expected the special-topics course to fill; I’d take it if I could [22].

What’s next? We move away from the sciences for GWS/SOC-395-01, ST: Gender-based Violence, which has 24 students enrolled and a capacity of 10 [23]. Since it’s a special topics course, it is unlikely to be essential for most students. However, they will likely need other courses in their majors.

Speaking of those majors, SOC-285-01, Contemporary Sociological Theory, is also over-enrolled by 14 students, although it has a slightly more generous capacity of 18 seats. Rumor has it that Karla Erickson, who is teaching the course, is willing to let it grow a bit, but certainly not by 14 students. I hear that Sociology is experiencing the same kinds of pressures that CS is; when students don’t fit in one course, there’s not necessarily another place for them to go. Let’s see … SOC-291-01, Methods of Empirical Investigation, is full. Surprisingly, SOC-279-01, Gender and Society, has 23 slots available; SOC-252-01, Animals and Society, has 16; SOC-240-01, Social Movements, has 11,; SOC-360-01, Work in the New Economy”, has 7; the three 200-level special topics courses have 62 slots; and SOC-395-02, ST: Social Network Analysis, has eleven slots. So there’s certainly room for students, just not in particular core courses.

Next up is MAT/CSC-208, Discrete Structures, which has 33 students enrolled and a capacity of 20. The Registrar will be cutting 13 students from that class. We discussed canceling another course to offer a second section, but we already have two sections scheduled in the spring, and most students’ plans shouldn’t be affected all that much by taking 208 in the spring [24].

We move further away from the sciences with our next course, ART-134-01, Drawing. Or not so far away; I know that Jeremy Chen regularly brings students to Noyce to sketch flora [25]. In any case, Drawing is over-enrolled by eleven students, with a total enrollment of 26. Strangely enough, none of the sections of ART-111 are over-enrolled, perhaps because they are offered in three-hour blocks on Monday/Wednesday, which cut out either the morning three-day-per-week classes or the afternoon three-day-per-week classes. For students looking for other creative development, ART/FRMS-255-01, Fundamentals of Video Production, is also over-enrolled, but by only four students.

Next up is PSY-214-01, Social Psychology w/lab, which is over-enrolled by 10 students, even though its cap is 25 students. A few other Psychology courses are also over-enrolled, including PSY-225-01, Research Methods, with 28 enrolled and 25 seats; PSY-348-01, Behavioral Medicine w/lab, with 21 registered and 15 seats; PSY-305-01, ST: Neural Basis of Consciousness, with 19 enrolled for 15 seats; and PSY-225-01, Research Methods, with 28 students enrolled and space for 25.

On to the next course! MAT/SST-115-01, Introduction to Statistics, has 38 students enrolled and only 28 seats available. Fortunately, the afternoon section has twelve slots available [26].

What do we have next? BIO-325-01, Fungal Biology w/lab, PSY-348-01, Behavioral Medicine w/lab, and BIO-380-01, BIO-380-01, all of which I covered in the discussion above. I’m running low on energy; it’s time to list the remaining courses. And nope, I’m not listing lab sections.

Over-enrolled by five

  • BIO-251-02, Molecules, Cells, and Organisms, w/lab. I think there’s room in the other sections.
  • ECN_280-01, Microeconomic Analysis. Section 2 has eight slots.

Over-enrolled by four

  • PHE-100-47, Fishing. This course has only five slots. Make of that what you will.
  • BCM-262-01, Introduction to Biological Chemistry w/lab. Hmmm … There’s only one section of Biological Chemistry. As I’ve noted, Chemistry is the department that appears most willing to let courses over-enroll, and a chemist is teaching this section.

Over-enrolled by three

  • POL-352-01, US Foreign Policymaking Process.
  • PHY-132-01, General Physics II w/lab

Over-enrolled by two

  • PHE-100-18, Beginning Racquetball
  • CHM-221-01, Organic Chemistry I w/lab

Over-enrolled by one

  • CSC-301-02, Analysis of Algorithms.
  • CSC-324-01, Software Design & Dev w/Lab.
  • EDU-295-01, ST: Mapping Racial Trauma.
  • CHM-363-01, Physical Chemistry I w/lab

At capacity

  • ENG-395-01, ST: Hist & Future of the Book.

I am surprised that only one course ended up precisely at capacity. And wow, it’s a class I’d like to take. Oh well, maybe after I retire.

A few disciplines have quite tight enrollments after round one, including Biology (at least at the 300 level), Computer Science, Psychology, and Sociology (in a few core courses). It worries me that the current system treats students in those majors inequitably, particularly those who are double majoring in two of those majors. In particular, such students will have trouble making up ground if they start a major late. They will also find it difficult to enroll in popular courses outside their majors.

I wonder what things will look like after round 2. Or maybe I don’t; I’m frustrated enough at what the round one cuts looked like [27].

Postscript: I find myself wanting to put the data into a spreadsheet, so one can tell at a glance when courses closed this time. Let’s see if I have the time and energy.

[1] See the disclaimer at the end.

[2] A first-come, first-served policy disadvantages students who might have to work when registration opens, students with anxiety issues, students with less prompt advisors, and others.

[3] Because we ask students to wait until their second year to declare a CS major, we should not have any first-year majors.

[4] Yup, four.

[5] We received email from the Registrar at 1:40 a.m. on Monday. Perhaps they set a send later in their email app, but I don’t think so.

[6] From the faculty side, it looked like cuts were not completed as of noon on Monday. In fact, cuts weren’t finished until Tuesday night.

[7] That last group generally only exists during registration for spring semester. I assume that students in that group register with first-year students when registering in the fall.

[8] See the prior note about the inequity of first-come, first-served policies.

[9] I assume that students who want more than 18 credits must wait until round four for the remaining credits [10].

[10] In general, students are capped at 18 credits. However, certain credit-bearing activities, such as music lessons, music ensembles, and PE/wellness activities, do not count toward that 18.

[11] The CS department is inclined to use long course names. Old computer scientists would probably call this CS2, although we’ve added some object-oriented concepts to the historical CS2 model [12,14].

[12] To make things even more confusing, some schools now use CS3 to refer to the data structures and algorithms course.

[14] I may have mused about CSC-207 in the past. I’m likely to muse about it again.

[15] Yes, there was a short time that I had the most-enrolled course at the College.

[16] There are lots of issues at play when one section over-enrolls and the other does not. Timing is often a factor; in this case, my section is in the morning, and the other is in the afternoon, which is more likely to conflict with labs. I’m also not requiring a textbook, and some students make choices based on course costs.

[17] Well, faculty aren’t supposed to control wait lists. I suppose some have figured out a way around that.

[18] I’m not sure that I fit within most of us. I’ve permitted as many as 41 students in one of my courses. It was not the best idea in terms of supporting my mental or physical well-being.

[19] Perhaps further reflections, since I snuck in a few in the introductory narrative.

[20] As one of my colleagues says, We’re just kicking the can down the road.

[21] Remember what I said about long course names in CS?

[22] In my opinion, we should require that topic. However, doing so will require that we have more faculty.

[23] As I noted earlier, a group of nine extra students is about the size of an upper-level seminar.

[24] At least, that’s what I thought. But I assumed that we’d be cutting rising second-year students. Rising third-year students will likely find their plans more significantly affected.

[25] And perhaps fauna.

[26] The two sections of MAT/SST-115, which have the same instructor, show a similar student preference for the morning section that we see in CSC-207. As I said, time makes a difference to students.

[27] In particular, the cuts for CS were particularly complicated, and that there were enough conflicting goals that things went kafloey. The number of students who can’t get CSC-207 is much greater than three. And there are rising third-years who didn’t get MAT/CSC-208. Fingers crossed that the institution helps us come up with a solution.

Version 1.0 released 2023-04-19.

Version 1.1.0 of 2023-04-30.