Class sizes on the decline

Students and faculty alike express concerns with the decreasing number of incoming students and offered courses.

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Class of 2026 drone shot. Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg Transitions Instagram.

It is no secret that over the past couple of years, Muhlenberg’s enrollment has been declining. As The Weekly previously reported, there were 2,178 students enrolled in the fall of 2015 and 1,857 in fall of 2022. As enrollment decreases, something else that has shifted is faculty to student ratio, which was 10:1 four years ago, and today sits at 8:1. Provost Laura Furge, Ph.D., shared that the College aims to get back to the 10:1 ratio. But what consequences does this have for the student body? According to Workday, in the fall of 2019, 834 classes were offered. Going into the fall of 2023, there will be 659 classes offered. A correlated effect is the cancellation (or threatened cancellation) of classes with low enrollment, which is happening across the board. Professors and students in a wide range of disciplines from political science, psychology, English and more have expressed concern and frustration over this occurrence. Some untenured faculty have opted not to comment.

So, is Muhlenberg canceling all classes below a certain level of enrollment? 

Furge shared that Muhlenberg is looking at other institutions to base their determination of whether there will be a minimum class size at which a class would not run. She said, “I’ve shared a plan with our department chairs that’s very similar to Lafayette’s, where we would have a cut-off of maybe eight, maybe six.”

While there is no hard cut-off yet, some classes over the past few semesters have been canceled due to low enrollment. 

One example is Government and Politics of South Asia, which was supposed to be offered this spring, but was canceled after registration in the fall of 2022 due to an enrollment of only five students. It is currently open for registration for fall 2023.

Shinam Hussain ‘25, who registered for the course last year, shared, “When I registered for it, I told [Political Science Department Chair] Dr. [Brian] Mello, ‘I’m scared because there’s only currently four people registered for it. And he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s fine. If we can get up to eight or 10 it’ll still go and we’re anticipating more people to register for it.’ And then all the registrations happened. And literally two weeks later, I got the email and it was like ‘Sorry, this class won’t be offered.’”

“I designed a brand new course, ‘Government and Politics of South Asia.’ Since Dr. Chris Herrick’s retirement, we lost a person who was offering classes on East Asia and Africa, two area studies courses that were critical for political science as well as international studies, which has area studies requirements,” said Professor of Political Science Mohsin Hashim, Ph.D. “I even got a four week course development grant to design this. And by the time I offered it, I thought, given the dearth of area studies courses, it would just fill up with enough bodies. And it didn’t, and we had to cancel it. And we had to scamper to meet my commitment, the teaching commitment. So I ended up teaching an intro course.”

If this class is canceled again, Hashim says, “There will be a lack of area studies courses which will leave a gap in geographical coverage.” He added, “It’s a region where over 1.8 billion people live in India and Pakistan and the rivalries there. Bangladesh is such an interesting country that’s developing well, India is a growing economy and climate, gender, borders, violence, democracy and all these things, would generate enough of an interest and I’m kind of at a loss and my department is too.”

While some might believe that a small class size makes the class worth canceling, many professors disagree.

Mello says, “While I recognize the importance of being conscious of class size and planning, there are times when courses are offered—particularly when focused on areas of the world that expand the College’s offerings in new areas of the world—when low-enrolled courses might need to be permitted to run as an expression of commitments to expand students global perspectives.” 

The classes that seem to be most at risk are those deemed electives.

“There may be fewer electives,” says Furge. “So you may have had in the past, more elective options at any given time, and some of those electives then may start to rotate.”

“So, something that was offered every semester may now only be offered once a year, or something that was offered once a year or maybe only every other year.”

Laura Furge

Hashim says, “There are exceptional courses that are at risk. And yet, they’re integral. They’re called electives, but they’re still integral to learning and the teaching mission of this department. And all of this will make you a global citizen, to live lives of leadership and responsibility, you have to understand different regions of the world.”

There is another layer to this issue when the person teaching the canceled elective is an adjunct professor. Adjunct faculty get paid per course so if their course is canceled, they lose that income. And if a class is canceled close to the start of the following semester this gives the adjunct little time to find another course to teach and recoup the lost income. This might become pertinent given that some professors are currently hoping to increase enrollment in their courses with first-year students registering over the summer.

Psychology is another department that has faced the issue of canceled classes. Justin Billich ‘24, a psychology major, shared, “At this point last year… I was looking to take one more class to fill my socio-cultural processes requirement. And of those classes that could have fulfilled that two of them are Social Psychology and Contemporary Racism. Contemporary Racism is a 400 level that I really wanted to take on because I feel like it pertained a lot to society, where social psychology would give me more theoretical experience, but I wanted to get a better know-how on the current events side of things.”

The class was canceled due to an enrollment of two students as of Apr. 22 last spring. Billich said “It’s definitely concerning to know that only two people sign up for the course that’s a 400-level, and covers that socio-cultural requirement. I think one of the things that contributed to it was the lack of GAR integration, I think that’s a big selling point for a lot of classes. In psych, there’s some other 400-level classes like poverty, risk and resilience, it’s a DE, an IL, a 400-level psych class and it contributes to the developmental processes, requirements, so it’s killing four birds with one stone.”

Furge shined a light on some statistics over the past few years, “In the fall of ‘21, we had five classes out of the roughly 750 that were offered… that had more than 40 students. We had four that had 30 to 40 students, we had eight that had 26 to 29. Or in short, 17 out of about 750 classes had more than 25 students… Only 2 percent, 2 percent of our total classes have even more than 25 students. 25 students is a small class. We taught 427 classes, or 50 percent of our classes, half of them had 10 to 20 students, which is a really terrific size. And then we had 16 percent of our classes or 128 that had fewer than 10, [they] had six to 10.”

In response to being asked if the need to bring the faculty to student ratio back to 10:1 is financial, Furge responded, “Certainly, that is part of it. If you look at any kind of institution that we compare ourselves [to] 8:1 is really low. And 10:1, 11:1 is a more normal ratio. And it does help to maintain the financial health of the institution, while also allowing us to have excellent opportunities for students in the variety of programs we have here.”

Professor of English Jim Bloom, Ph.D., shared that, “During the current semester, enrollments in two of my classes didn’t meet the provost’s new target minimum while one of my courses had a waitlist and is well over the minimum… My department’s [fall] ‘24 enrollments do seem to have been adversely affected and we may need to cancel at least one class and replace with it a class likely to draw new [first-year] enrollees during June advising.”

This seems to be another common trend, where upper level classes are being either altered or changed entirely to classes that would be more adept for underclassmen.

Billich shared that when the upper level class, Contemporary Racism, was canceled, another section of Social Psychology, a 200-level course, was offered instead.

In referencing his own course, Hashim said, “One of the ways I can redesign this course is by making it an introductory level or open to them. But that would compromise the integrity of this course.”

Other issues to consider are the difficulty students might face in registering for a new course if theirs is canceled.

Shira Holtz ‘24 had two classes canceled after registering, and she shared, “It was really, really frustrating. I had partially planned my schedule around these courses. I had made sure that I was going to be able to get requirements completed with them or just continue my education or my training in something that I was excited about as an elective through them, and it also meant that I was forced to scramble to find classes that could fill those spaces in my course load, whether that be meeting at the same time or just filling the requirement or elective that I was trying to fill.”

Hussain had a similar experience, “It was between Governments and Politics of South Asia and Gender, Politics and Policy. I pick[ed] government and politics of South Asia, and then that got canceled. And by the time I went to go register again, Gender, Politics and Policy was full and all of the spots were taken.”

Jake Suesserman ‘23 echoed “I wish that the school had allowed us to have backup classes ready to go in Workday so that we would not have had to scramble trying to make another class fit within our schedule, especially for people who may have needed that class for a major.”

Despite the fact that some believe that classes below a certain size aren’t ideal, many assert that there would still be value in running them. 

Hussain says, “I want to take Government and Politics of South Asia. As someone who is South Asian, that’s so interesting. And there’s no class that’s focusing on South Asian politics.”

“So that was so disappointing, and now I see it’s available again for next semester and I’m not taking it because I can’t.”

Shinam Hussain ’25

Suesserman had originally registered for Hashim’s class when it was first offered, but is graduating and will not be able to take it when it’s offered again. He said, “I would have taken the class with five students because I loved taking classes with Dr. Hashim.”

Billich echoed the sentiment with regard to Contemporary Racism, saying, “I would have loved to still take it. But just with overall logistics, it would have never been run. But if it was, I would have taken it because I really wanted to.”

“It’s one thing to say to make more with less or make do with less, but we are also an institution of higher learning and in a globalized world,” said Hashim. “And when we have exposed our racism and ethnocentrism here in the United States, we need to reconfigure our understanding and critically inquire about our engagement with the rest of the world.” 

In reference to Muhlenberg, Hashim says, “This is the new reality, with a shrunken student body, we are trying to meet a minimum of eight students per class threshold because of financial exigencies or constraints. So, what does that do to the academic mission and objective of the College? I don’t quite know.”

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