Before each semester begins, we wake up early, especially for college students, to pre-enroll in our courses for the term. But, even if we do wake up early, we’re not guaranteed to get into the classes we either want to or are required to take because most classes have an enrollment cap. For a lot of major classes — I’d even venture to say the majority — those caps are reached quickly after pre-enroll opens. These limits are such a common fixture of Cornell classes that we often don’t consider the premise in and of itself: why do we have caps on so many classes? Is it really necessary? And hasn’t Zoom teaching during the pandemic showed us the best side of making classes accessible and available?
Ultimately, as I understand it, caps on class enrollment are meant to ensure the quality of the class while maintaining a manageable workload for the professors and teaching assistants. This particularly (and understandably) applies to seminar classes. However, in reality, caps extend far beyond just small seminar classes and are often affixed to popular computer science classes like CS 4852: Networks and CS 4320: Databases, among other disciplines.
As a student who has served as a TA in computer science courses, I do know that TAs typically host office hours and oversee the grading of material for classes I also know that there are plenty of students who would be willing to serve as TAs. So, if we have plenty of capacity for students to take up TA positions and help manage bigger class loads, we clearly have student interest in these courses that are unnecessarily capped. We know that professors can manage conveying the material — whether that be synchronously or asynchronously — regardless of how many physical pupils sit in the auditorium seats, so why are we still subjecting popular classes and eager students to superfluous limits on course enrollment?
If it is a matter of funding or a matter of space, I hardly believe those are reasons enough to apply caps on course enrollment. While we are privileged to have great opportunities in courses and extracurriculars while at Cornell, I also am realizing now — as I march toward the conclusion of my fourth year on campus (more or less) — that the typical eight semesters really do fly by. We have approximately 32 to 40 course opportunities over the duration of those eight semesters, after we fulfill major requirements, sometimes minor requirements, as well as college-wide course requirements. However, students (especially in engineering, which is where my perspective comes from) really only have four to five courses to choose without any strings attached whatsoever. Yet, if they try to use these opportunities to vie for some of the more popular courses at Cornell — like those in microeconomics or finance — they’ll find themselves running into another barrier: course enrollment caps.
I have an alternative proposal. Because I understand that Cornell would need time to adjust and to plan administratively, I propose to spend the next two years monitoring the popularity of each course beyond just the amount of students that ultimately gain entrance. How many students put each course in their cart on Student Center? How many students petition to enroll? Once the University has a more accurate sense of how popular classes are — assuming there aren’t material constraints like with P.E. or wines classes — each department can prepare to meet that demand by hiring more TAs if necessary, booking the appropriate instruction space and ensuring the professor’s curriculum is adaptable to the proper size. By providing a transition period, Cornell would have enough time to prepare — but ultimately would meet the goal of having fewer courses capped.
This pandemic has left me with two major lessons regarding college as I have stumbled through the latter half of my sophomore year, my entire junior year and now the majority of my senior year with COVID-19 as a consideration. The first is that college is fleeting — indeed, only eight semesters even without a global pandemic — but made even more so now that we see the potential disruptions that may occur. And secondly, that learning from scholars and professors at the forefront of their fields is not a privilege to be taken for granted.
By uncapping classes and making them more accessible and available to even more students (who are already eager to take them!), I believe we would be taking some of those lessons learned and using them to create a more robust, enjoyable and meaningful college experience for the tens of thousands of students who attend Cornell each year. Instead of capping classrooms and closing doors, especially when COVID-19 already made us stay at home, we can learn to embrace accessibility and flexibility now that we are finally emerging at the end of this pandemic.
Somil Aggarwal ‘22 (he/him) is a senior in the College of Engineering studying Computer Science. He can be reached at [email protected] print(“Somil”) runs every other Wednesday this semester.