Size Matters

This week, the Editorial Board addresses the issues that over-enrollment imposes on students’ academic experiences and calls for the expansion of resources and infrastructure in preparation for a broader student population.

“Over enrollment appears to be a pressing problem: a lot of hassled students have reported being unable to get into classes required for their major; many professors and departments seem to be stretching themselves beyond their capacity to accommodate the overwhelming demand from the student body.” While this seems like it could have been said yesterday by anybody witnessing the chaos on campus, it is actually an opening line from The Student’s editorial on Feb. 7, 2012. The clear parallels between student concerns now and then speak to the college’s lack of foresight in generating yet another over-enrollment fiasco.

Unfortunately, the enrollment chaos to which President Biddy Martin arrived in the 2011-2012 academic year will remain after she is gone. But a single person, or even a single administration, is not wholly to blame for the mess we find ourselves in. Instead, Amherst as an institution is responsible for routinely neglecting to invest in this college’s infrastructure — whether that be housing, dining or faculty and staff — while  repeatedly expanding the student body in ways it can’t accommodate.

Year after year, we see statistics pointing to the largest class in college history — until the next year, of course  — with no commensurate increase in spending on housing for students or new staff and faculty hires. Classes are overenrolled, staff are overworked and many a student on campus can tell you about the dreadful experience that they or a friend had living in a forced triple for a year. This year, we can add many more students to that sorry list.

Not only is the situation deeply frustrating, but it simply doesn’t make sense that we’ve managed to uphold this unhappy tradition when clear solutions are available. Why didn’t the college, like our dear rival Williams, opt to admit fewer students in order to address the high number of pandemic-gap year students? Or, if that option was not on the table, why didn’t they prepare the college for its higher number of students before we got here? Setting up more dining locations, hiring more faculty and lecturers and expanding the administrative offices would each go a little way to addressing  the many issues of over-enrollment — all could have been accomplished before students even set foot on campus. They just require a little bit of spending, certainly nothing the college can’t afford.

Instead, students have reported trouble getting into the classes they want, even including some introductory courses mandatory for their majors. Professors have complained that their courses are overenrolled and overcrowded — not traits anyone would like for their first in-person courses of the pandemic. The college has inadvertently sacrificed its prized low average class size on the altar of its even-more-prized endowment.

One might suggest that professors could teach more courses with fewer students in each course, but that seems unfair to an already overworked faculty — especially when much of the faculty is already on sabbatical. The much clearer and more ethical solution is to just hire more faculty. Academia is a notoriously competitive field and we have no doubt that there are multitudes of qualified scholars who would graciously accept work at the college. An expanding student body should be met with an expanded faculty.

One of the most unique things about Amherst College is its open curriculum. Students are able to choose all of their own courses without any general requirements, meaning they can experiment with things they’ve never tried before — some have even triple majored. For many of us, the flexibility afforded by the open curriculum is what first drew us to the college, and may be responsible for our being here now. Unfortunately, this semester students, many of whom have never had an in-person college course in their lives, have been unable to take advantage of that flexibility as professors (understandably) give preference to majors over those who want to try new things.

In fact, taking advantage of many of the college’s unique offerings — the Counseling Center, the Loeb Center or even just faculty office hours — has become more difficult and more constrained, robbing the many students who have never experienced a pandemic-free semester at the college of yet another normal semester. At this point, it's likely too late to give that semester back, but we can certainly start planning for the future.

The college should invest in more on-campus resources, more faculty, more staff, and yes, more housing. Though it could be argued (and certainly has been) that these measures are unnecessary because over-enrollment is a short-term problem, our history tells a different story. It shows a college that has consistently pursued expansion — small enough to work, but too large to work well. We should acknowledge the problems this has caused and, more importantly, their frequency, and invest the resources necessary to solve them.

It’s time to build a bigger Amherst, we already have the student body to fill it.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 10; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 5).