Gettysburgian Investigation Finds Broad Disparities in Department Course Enrollment

(Photo Allyson Frantz/The Gettysburgian)

(Photo Allyson Frantz/The Gettysburgian)

By Benjamin Pontz, Editor-in-Chief

Gettysburg College advertises an average class size of 17. But, depending on what subject a student majors in, they may rarely—if ever—see such a class size. An Environmental Studies course, for example, is five times as likely as an English course to have an enrollment above the college average. An Organization & Management Studies course is twice as likely as a Theatre Arts course to have an enrollment above that benchmark of 17. The average enrollment for a course in Biology is over 27, while the average for a course in the Sunderman Conservatory of Music is below 14.

While specialized equipment, the nature of foreign language instruction, and the necessity to offer capstone courses even in departments with small numbers of majors can require certain classes to have smaller enrollments, broad disparities still exist between disciplines and divisions of the academic program in terms of the size of course enrollments and the number of students faculty members are expected to advise.

The Gettysburgian compiled a dataset containing an entry for each of the more than 4,200 full-credit lecture sections offered at Gettysburg College over the past four years. That data shows that, on average, courses in the natural sciences (a division that includes psychology, computer science, and mathematics) have the largest enrollments, followed by social sciences and interdisciplinary programs, and finally the arts and humanities, which have the lowest course enrollments. All told, 12 subject areas have average class sizes above 20, while, at the other end of the spectrum, 11 subject areas have average class sizes below 12. In other words, to a large extent, the size of your classes will depend on what you choose to study.

Download: Summary table with average departmental course enrollments (PDF)

To Professor of Political Science Bruce Larson, the department chair, that disparity is a problem.

“We make a promise to these students who come to liberal arts school because they want small classes,” he said. “And when we don’t [deliver] this reputation gets around and we can be damaged by it.”

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Some classes are expected to have fairly high enrollments. Astronomy 102, for example, which many students take to fulfill their lab science requirement, has an enrollment cap of 40, a benchmark that is fairly standard across introductory courses in the natural sciences.

Biology Department Chair J. Matthew Kittelberger said that high enrollments in the sciences are not necessarily a problem because students still receive individualized attention in labs.

“[M]uch of the in depth education occurs in small lab settings,” he said.

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