By SUSAN JONES
One issue dominated much of the discussion at three different Senate committees in the past two weeks — the impact of Pitt’s largest ever freshman class.
Joe McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, told the Educational Policies committee that although the incoming freshman class is about 600 people more than was projected, Pitt’s overall undergraduate headcount remains roughly the same it has been for the past five to eight years. This is largely attributed to more students graduating in four years (71 percent, at last count) and fewer transfers coming to Pitt. He said he’s been working with the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid to be much more “transfer friendly.”
But, McCarthy admitted, “In those classes that are strictly for first-year students, those are likely to be somewhat problematic right now. But to the extent that those students can juggle around and take other classes in sort of a nontraditional sequence, I think that there should be essentially the same workload for faculty, if we can distribute those students appropriately.”
He said the pandemic, coupled with Pitt’s test-optional policy, made it a particularly difficult year to predict how many accepted students would decide to come to Pitt. Of the 33,000 applications the University received, about half did not include an SAT or ACT score, and about half of those who ended up here didn’t submit scores. The numbers aren’t final yet, but there are approximately 4,900 students in the freshman class, which is 15 percent more than the target and 23 percent more than the incoming class in 2019. The largest jumps were in the Swanson School of Engineering, up 17 percent, and the School of Computing and Information, up 23 percent.
Senate President Robin Kear, who is attending all of the committees’ first meetings of the semester, said a suggestion was made by Sybil Streeter, co-chair of the Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs (SAAA) committee, that her group, along with Educational Policies, Faculty Affairs and Budget committee members get together to discuss the impact of over-enrollment on students and faculty.
Kear said the Senate wants to know, “what the effect of over-enrollment is on their areas, or what they’re hearing about, or how things are being addressed or not addressed for them. And also any suggestions for improvement.”
At the Budget Policies committee meeting on Sept. 17, Lorraine Denman, Italian Language program coordinator and senior lecturer, said: “I’d be curious to hear students’ perspectives on this. Some of my students today told me that there are students sitting in the aisles of their classroom due to overcrowding. This must impact students in very negative ways.”
“It also makes it much more difficult for students to enroll in classes they need to graduate on time,” said Ryan Yeager, of the College of General Studies Student Government.
Members of the SAAA committee were polled before the meeting about issues they were having with over-enrollment and suggestions, and they had plenty to say.
At the Sept. 22 meeting, Marylou Gramm, director of undergraduate studies for composition in the English department, said 100 freshmen were not able to get seats in required first-year writing classes this fall. “Part of that is because we weren’t told until mid-summer that 600 additional Pitt students were coming. And while I did hire 20 people, I couldn’t hire more, and even if I had, there aren’t classrooms.”
She said she’s already heard from the registrar that 20 writing classes in the spring currently don’t have classrooms and the only time they can get a classroom is at 8 a.m. or 6 p.m. “Please stop building sports facilities and build a building of classrooms,” Gramm said.
On the survey, one person noted that English faculty were invited to take on more courses for extra pay, with some teaching four classes this semester. Another person suggested having classes in larger spaces to facilitate more social distancing.
Other issues raised by the committee included overcrowded hubs, long waiting times for health service and increased demand for outdoor seating with limited availability. One person noted that people often struggle to find places to eat in Salk Hall during lunch break.
The Senate Budget Policies committee discussed the over-enrollment issue from a different angle, namely how it was impacting Pitt’s budget in both positive and negative ways.
Tyler Bickford, chair of the committee, said he was surprised that the final budget numbers did not change with all the extra tuition money these students bring in. He indicated that Hari Sastry, Pitt’s chief financial officer, told the University Planning and Budgeting Committee that “if the enrollments did come in higher that he had tools for including that extra tuition in the operating budget.”
Bickford said that money could be used to eliminate a 1 percent permanent budget cut that was implemented this year and increase the salary pool. “Where is that money going?” he asked.
Steve Wisniewski, vice provost for budget and analytics, echoed McCarthy’s figures in saying that although the freshman class is bigger, overall enrollment is only slightly up. The regional campuses are still struggling with enrollment along with some graduate programs, he said.
The extra tuition money is being used to offset expenses caused by the large class, Wisniewski said. For instance, the College of Business Administration had a significant increase in students and some of the tuition money will be allocated to help the school pay for additional instructors. Some of the money also was spent on more financial aid and on increased housing costs. Pitt is again leasing all of the Residence Inn University Medical Center on Bigelow Boulevard to house students. Student Affairs, in particular, has many challenges with the larger class, including more students needing counseling services.
“We do not like it when this happens,” Wisniewski said of the larger than expected enrollment. “People might think, ‘Oh this is great.’ No it’s not great, … we really work hard to try to meet our targets.”
“What’s confusing is that if we didn’t have a 1 percent across the board cut, then there would be more resources available to support these additional students,” Bickford countered.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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