They are a necessary evil and a defining factor for the college process. College ranking guides, most notably The Princeton Review, Forbes, Newsweek, Fiske’s Guide to Colleges and U.S. News & World rank elite American institutions in every way possible, from the professors to student ratios to campus beauty.
Colgate has recently been slipping in the ubiquitous rankings, especially compared to other small, liberal arts colleges. While rankings to many seem arbitrary and unfair, there are some ways in which indisputable facts are influential. One such way is the average number of students in each class.
This fall, some students faced unprecedented difficulty getting into classes for which they were not registered or were on the wait-list. Rumors soon percolated that the administration was attempting to boost Colgate’s rankings by decreasing the average number of students per class.
This, however, seems to merely be hearsay.
According to Interim Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Bruce Selleck, the administration is by no means limiting the number of students in each class. In fact, the central administration itself doesn’t have jurisdiction over the amount of students per class, except for first-year seminars and core classes, which have a maximum of 18 and 25 students, respectively. Instead, each department or program convenes independently and decides on an appropriate maximum of students per class.
Administrators, however, do prefer smaller class sizes.
“We [the administration] do pay attention to the number of people in courses,” Selleck said. “We try to keep classes under 20 or 25 people, because the point of somewhere like Colgate is to have small classes.”
According to preliminary data, of the 570 total courses and sections offered to students this fall, 109 were at the class limit, 142 were over-enrolled, and 319 had seats available. A large number of over-enrolled classes only had one or two students over the limit, which is a negligible amount for most classes. Every semester, this data is then studied and class maximums are revised.
“It’s a matter of balancing goods. We need to consider that smaller classes mean each student can speak up more and have more access to the professor,” Selleck said. “On the other hand, we have to consider that kids need to get into certain classes for a major or distribution, or simply because they’re interested in the class.”
Apparently, though, some professors were instructed to cap classes at a lower number than to what they were accustomed: an amount that could, coincidentally, help Colgate’s average class size to be contentious in comparison to other colleges.
“I have mixed thoughts on the policy [of capping classes],” Associate Professor of Political Science Douglas Macdonald said. “On the one hand, I think U.S. News & World Report and other such ‘guides’ are over-used. Then again, prospective students and their families do use them to try to simplify the complicated process of picking a school. So they are a reality we have to deal with. I do think that a cut-off of nineteen students is somewhat arbitrary, but we don’t make up the criteria, the ‘guides’ do.”
“The faculty has to be and is being flexible – they’re not trying to keep students out of their classes,” Selleck said, reiterating that there is not a mandated and absolute number of students allowed per class.
There are advantages to more intimate classes, and the students who manage to get into a smaller class will likely have a better academic experience. Professors would be more accessible, and each student would have a greater opportunity to participate in each class.
Nonetheless, according to a graph provided by Selleck plotting preliminary data for the enrollment by course in Fall 2011, the average class size is hovering comfortably between 15 and 30 students. Only a handful of classes exceed 50 students; most Colgate students thus can avoid classes that are reminiscent of larger or public universities. The University, has, according to Selleck, also hired 73 new professors, both permanent or visiting, over the past two years.
The bottom line, then, seems to be that the Administration is not purposefully limiting each class to a number of students to improve Colgate’s ratings. While students and professors may still be facing difficulties with the number of students in each class, this was supposedly just an anomaly. The administration and faculty are also aware of core and major requirements, and seem to cater to students with these priorities. Moreover, if our average number of students per class is in fact declining, it isn’t unfortunate for our rank in the college lists to increase.
Contact Selina Koller at [email protected]