September 21, 2023

POGGI | Too Many Students, Not Enough Seats

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When people complain about the arduous journey of the pre-med track, buzzwords emerge like numbers on a bingo card. If anything, “words” is a stretch; instead, acronyms and nicknames like MCAT and orgo stick out in our humanities-deprived vocabulary. What you often don’t hear, though, are complaints over the inability actually to enroll in a course. Given Cornell’s academic rigor, complaints should center on course content, regardless of major or pre-professional track. Yet, with Cornell’s chronic over-enrollment, class availability has become the limiting reactant in graduation progress, career goals, declaring majors and minors or simple interest in academic exploration.

As a junior, I was unable to get into my physics class during pre-enroll or add/drop. This course was required for my major as well as my pre-med track, and failure to complete it would force me to delay studying abroad and potentially reschedule my MCAT. It was not my lack of ambition to study Newton’s laws or Gauss’ spheres, but the overzealous enrollment of an increasingly corporate Cornell. As a freshman, these issues of class capacity were to be expected. But now as an upperclassman, I’ve realized that students cannot age out of this problem if Cornell continues to expand enrollment without accommodating more students.

Rest assured, I got into the physics class through some hoop-jumping, schedule rearranging and sacrificing electives. Monday night lab has never felt so good. But I should not have to give up classes that interest me for a shot at enrollment in a required class. Moreover, for students with less flexibility in their other classes, or commitments like shift jobs, an inability to enroll in classes limits them from reaching their full academic potential. Over-enrollment creates equity issues in class scheduling, leaving students vulnerable to exploitation.

Other students advised me to try an auto-tutorial class or apply for special studies. Advisors suggested taking a summer or winter course to graduate on time, or switching my concentration to one with more flexible electives. While these may all seem like viable solutions, I believe that this faux flexibility serves as a crutch for the greater issues of over-enrollment. I do not learn well in auto-tutorial classes or special studies and I believe in the power of in-person learning. I like my concentration — switching it based on logistical ease rather than interest degrades the integrity of my major. To stay true to “Any person, any study,” Cornell must enable students to pursue their studies without barriers of enrollment.

So what to do? As much as I love to complain, I also believe that this problem can easily be solved. Cornell will likely continue to over-enroll, and it is unlikely the institution will reduce its student population despite increased applications. So, taking over-enrollment as a given, Cornell must divert more resources to faculty and classroom capacity. With the ever-increasing tuition rate, I don’t think asking for more physics professors nor spaces that can hold more than 300 people is unreasonable. Demand is there, and Cornell owes capacity to their students. I won’t even ask for air conditioning in the lecture halls — that’s getting a little greedy.

This year has taught me that complaining about a course, whether it be a bad prelim grade, rude TA or time-consuming assignment, is a privilege in and of itself. Complaints about the actual content of a course are contingent on successful enrollment, which not all of us can achieve.

 My observations also come as an outsider to overenrolled class years. As a junior whose accommodation, dining and recreation are established and off-campus, I can’t comment on long mail lines, dining hall insufficiencies or gym capacity. Other than my constant inability to find parking in Collegetown, I mostly only experience the academic consequences of over-enrollment. But I’m sure others, particularly underclassmen, may have more to say. For now, I’ll go back to learning uniform motion, grateful for my opportunity to do so.

Julia Poggi is a third year student in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Outbox is a collection of reflections, advice and notes to self about life at Cornell, with a focus on coursework-life balance. She can be reached at [email protected].

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