Seeking Data: What’s happening at your school as you cap CS major enrollment?

May 17, 2019 at 7:00 am 9 comments

I’m just back from the 2019 NCWIT Summit (see link here), which was amazing — as always. I talked to people at schools who have instituted caps on undergraduate CS enrollment, and I’m hearing stories that I didn’t expect.  I’d love to hear your experience at your school.  Are you seeing these things?

  • One story is that students are taking and re-taking (“2-3 times”) the early classes, to get high enough grades to get past the grade cap.  Thus, the GPA grade cap has actually increased enrollment pressure on earlier classes.
  • Because of these course repeats, students are (presumably) taking longer to graduate. I didn’t talk to anyone with data on that — maybe it’s too soon, since caps are within the last 3-5 years at most institutions?
  • I was also hearing about incredible pressure that students are feeling because of the grade caps.  We expected to see impacts on enrollment for under-represented groups, but these reports say that everyone has increased stress because of the grade caps. The caps are leading to damage to department climate and even a spike in mental health issues. (I heard some pretty horrible stories.)

These are all just anecdote. I’m not sure how to cast a wider net for more information, but this blog might be a place to start.  Could you share your reports on how enrollment caps are impacting your course enrollment at the lower levels, on time to graduation, and on departmental climate (or other issues)? Thanks!


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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  May 17, 2019 at 8:26 am

    I hope you will also be recording (and for that matter, requesting) info on schools who are not capping (e.g., Brown, where we generally oppose caps wherever possible). It would be disappointing if the primary narrative is oriented around caps, which can happen simply through exclusion. Something similar has already happened with the notion of intro courses being “weeders”, which has become the default narrative (even though I know of no real evidence for that statement).

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  May 17, 2019 at 8:58 am

      We have no caps at my former institution (Georgia Tech) nor my new home, University of Michigan. At Georgia Tech, they’re trying to avoid caps and manage enrollment by moving more courses on-line. Here at Michigan, there is significant support for capping enrollment using grades. I’m gathering evidence to argue against caps. These stories I heard at NCWIT were new for me, and measurable (e.g., enrollment increase at the lower levels, delayed time to graduate, requests for counseling and other forms of mental health supports). I’m hoping to bolster my argument against with new evidence.

  • 3. BKM  |  May 17, 2019 at 8:51 am

    We don’t cap enrollment, and we do not have weeder courses. It is a problem though because it increases enrollment pressure on the upper division courses, which are much harder to staff than the intro courses. We also have serious problems in the upper division courses with underprepared students.

  • 4. Andy Ko  |  May 17, 2019 at 10:13 am

    Here at UW, in both CS and the iSchool, we have not just grade “caps”, but also enrollment caps. The downsides are numerous:

    • Chronic retakes of lower-division courses
    • Competitive climate of lower-division courses
    • Rejected students who have no backup plan delaying graduation, transferring elsewhere, or dropping out of college altogether
    • Immense stress from uncertainty of academic path

    As the program chair for the iSchool’s Informatics program, I have lots of data to support this: thousands of email a year, hundreds of phone calls from angry parents and alumni, surveys of rejected students about their future plans, broken pathways from 2-year colleges, etc. It’s altogether miserable.

    Except for the students who do get in. Class sizes are small, the community is tight, supportive, and empowering. Our majors connect with our faculty at scale. We provide immense support for career planning through near peer mentorship programs, internship coordination. The students have their own space in which to build community. Of course, all of these resources are part of what generates demand for our degree, exacerbating the problems that freshman and sophomores face.

    I’m not convinced the grass is greener without caps: huge upper-division classes, lack of access to office hours, faculty guilt from not being able to serve everyone, students staying anonymous their entire time in college, and all of the diversity and equity issues that come with these problems of scale. I think that there are fundamental challenges in trying to scale instruction and community building that force a trade between attention and access.

    UW is in the process of shifting a lot of this tension to freshman direct admissions, which only pushes the stress to high school, where adolescents are even less prepared for it. But I suppose it’s a lesser evil in some way sense the stress is already so high for college admissions; perhaps it adds no additional stress since stress is already maximized. Or perhaps not.

    I see no silver bullet, just an opportunity to pick our poison.

    One thought I’ve had recently is how to use my power as an administrator to redirect student interest to other subjects. Arts, humanities, and the social sciences are powerful, necessary, critical disciplines that so many students are blind to because of the constant marketing of STEM in the world. Computing and other STEM disciplines could play a large role in de-stigmatizing other academic subjects. I’ve started to explore partnerships with arts and humanities departments that will deflect students interested in computing to disciplines in which computing is becoming a key tool, but as applied to other questions and phenomena.

    • 5. Michael Ball  |  May 18, 2019 at 1:13 am

      From my own experience, it definitely adds stress at high school, and this was verging on 10 years ago. College Admissions are part mathematics and part luck, I believe. Students are aware that for selective schools, the more people that apply the harder it is.
      Whether it makes the stress of rejection more manageable is an open question — I don’t know, but I suspect it depends at lot on how definitively someone knows they want to study CS.

      I certainly played the numbers game — I got into Berkeley as a BA, because I didn’t want to chance a BS admissions. At the time there was no major cap. It’s hard to say how that would have changed my views. I had other options, fortunately, but I wasn’t 100% on CS.

      Anyway, to the rest of issues with caps, you can see that at Berkeley too. Berkeley’s BA CS is not direct admission but has a GPA minimum, with an application process that is wholistic.
      (The BS program is direct admission to the College of Engineering, whose enrollment has grown but nowhere near what the BA program has grown).

  • 6. Valerie Barr  |  May 17, 2019 at 10:36 am

    I make a distinction between enrollment caps and grade requirements for prerequisite courses. All of our courses are capped because we are a liberal arts institution that prides itself on offering the small classroom experience (though our intro CS are 2X the size of our upper level electives). We’ve addressed enrollment pressure by increasing the number of sections of the intro. Independent of that, we have a grade requirement of C or better to go from 1st to 2nd course and to go from 2nd to 3rd course. So maybe the nature of the grade requirement is important to ask about — it’s one thing if a student has to have a B or better to continue, which definitely cuts out some students who could do fine in CS; a different issue if the grade requirement is C or C-. I’ll also note that my institution does not allow students to retake a course they have passed, so a student who wishes to continue has to demonstrate in some other way that they have learned the material (often by taking a summer course at another institution, so we shift our enrollment issues to other schools 😉

    • 7. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  May 18, 2019 at 1:13 pm

      Given what you described, do you end up with students intentionally tanking the course (e.g., just not sitting for the final) so that they can retake it for a better grade? I assume you’re at a school with grades down to D, so a C- or D student may have incentive to just not “finish” the course, thereby working around your “no retake” policy. Ot course this option is more available to some than others (e.g., students on certain kinds of financial aid, or international students with full-time status requirements, may not be able to take this risk), which could create certain odd kinds of inequality of opportunity…

  • 8. Cam Macdonell  |  May 17, 2019 at 11:03 am

    Our class sizes are constrained by classrooms that are mostly 40 or 60 seats (we used to be a college), but the waitlists are getting long. A question we have is should we cap at capacity or below? If we cap where all classes will fill, students can’t switch classes after enrolling because everything is full and they risk losing a CS credit if they drop and can’t get into another class. Some extra capacity would be great, but still excludes some and doesn’t maximize tuition dollars which sets administration antennae twitching.

    A faculty at another institution warned about how caps based on GPA kept increasing the cutoff. So, students who realize CS is for their calling in junior year (and maybe struggled previously) have this very high bar, but students who are already declared and now struggling, perhaps realizing CS is not for them, creates a priority inversion keeping these late bloomers from getting into the major.

  • 9. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  May 17, 2019 at 12:17 pm

    We have only recently started limiting CS enrollment (declaring the CS major impacted, so that they could limit the numbers they accepted into the major, and only transfer students and students admitted as freshmen to the major get in). The lower-division courses are large, but the real pressure was on the upper-division courses.

    Students in other majors (such as bioinformatics) now have essentially zero chance of getting into upper-division CS courses like machine learning, as priority enrollment is given to CS majors and no slots are left for anyone else.

    One effect has been for other departments to start teaching their own courses in programming and other traditionally CS subjects, just so that their students are guaranteed seats. The math department is starting a major in computational mathematics that looks like a traditional scientific programming concentration. The biomolecular engineering department teaches 2 programming courses that are more advanced than the CS intro course, but have no prereqs, and are planning to offer their own analysis of algorithms course in a couple of years (because of creeping prerequitism in the CSE department making proof-based analysis of algorithms have 3 more course prereqs than previously).


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