Overcrowding in America’s Colleges and Universities

by Staff Writers

When people think of overcrowding in schools, the first thing that comes to mind is elementary, middle, and high schools buzzing with children running into each other in congested hallways and long treks to portable classroom buildings. But overcrowding isn't just contained to K-12.

Though the schools in California seem to be at the forefront of the overcrowding issue in higher education, the state is just the latest to put a face on the overcrowding that has plagued the campuses of colleges and universities across the nation for years.

How the Overcrowding Began

California's higher education institutions have had difficulties with overcrowding in the past, which required them to significantly shrink their enrollments a couple of years ago.

With overcrowding at four-year institutions, many students are forced into considering the two-year route for college. For community colleges in Colorado, a soaring enrollment and a steep drop in state funding were the driving forces behind many of the system's schools' overcrowding troubles. In 2010, many of the 13 schools in the system were at capacity.

Overcrowding plagued Miami-Dade College, the largest public college in the U.S., when in 2011 the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges threatened to pull the school's accreditation if it didn't fix the issue of overcrowding and under-staffing. The regional accreditor's warning said Miami-Dade College hadn't proven it had an adequate number of full-time faculty members to support the mission of the school. Currently, the college enrolls more than 174,000 students.

The common denominator among schools' struggles with overcrowding seems to lie in cuts in school funding, which forces colleges and universities to make tough decisions.

Effects on Students and Educators

Overcrowding is a critical issue, considering it affects not only higher education institutions, but the students and educators who work there. Institutions are often burdened with trying to find a way to educate students, often with limited resources and faculty.

  • Enrollment cuts: When challenged with overcrowding, many colleges make the decision to cut enrollments. Several campuses in the California State University System chose to enroll much fewer applicants in 2010. Those enrollment cuts led many students to enroll in community colleges, but as a result, it created problems for the state's community college transfers. In the 2009-2010 academic year, fewer than 38,000 students were able to transfer from community colleges to Cal State, a significant decrease from 55,000 students two years earlier.
  • More adjuncts, less pay: For the Colorado Community College System, a strong reliance on adjunct professors, who work part-time and do not receive benefits, can address overcrowding but can also be a roadblock to faculty recruitment.
  • "Crashing Courses": A practice known as ‘crashing courses,' in which students enroll in closed courses after registration has ended or enrolls in an already full course, has developed at several college campuses because of overcrowding.

Searching for Solutions

In an attempt to address the overcrowding issue in the state, California Senator Darrell Steinberg announced in March that he is sponsoring a bill to establish for-credit online courses for state colleges and universities.

According to the summary of SB 520, 85% of California Community Colleges reported having waiting lists for their fall 2012 course sections, with the statewide average being more than 7,000 students on waiting lists per college. Additionally, only 60% of UC students and 16% of CSU students are able to earn their degree within four years, with lack of access to key courses a factor in increasing the time to obtain a degree.

The hope is that SB 520 will allow students access to the most popular required courses through private online educators, such as Coursera and Udacity. Prior to being offered for college credit, the courses would have to go through an approval process.

Originally the bill stated that 50 of the most in-demand introductory classes in the University of California, California State University, and the state community college system will be chosen by the California Open Education Resources Council to be made available online.

But there was some opposition to the bill. Faculty members from the University of California criticized the bill, saying it is in "clear self-interest of for-profit corporations in promoting the privatization of public higher education."

The faculty members also expressed that they felt the bill was undermining the UC's Academic Senate's power to determine if the transfer courses will cover the proper material as accurately as the UC courses do.

Due to faculty concerns, SB 520 was amended to give oversight to the administration and academic senates for the University of California, California State University, and the California Community Colleges System.

In addition, the amended bill would tie administration of the program to the California Virtual Campus and restrict each course to students already enrolled in a California public institute of higher education.

If the bill passes, and it most likely will, it would be the first of its kind, weaving privately administered online classes in public higher education. The courses will be transferable for credit. This could be a huge step in helping dismantle the current barrier to on-time graduation for many of California's college students.

Likewise, the state's community college system is looking to improve online education and increase online education opportunities.

The California Community College System (CCCS) is the largest provider of online education in the state. Online education has already been established as a game changer in higher education, but it also stands to alleviate campus overcrowding. Taking courses online not only seems like a viable option for students unable to take certain required classes at a community college, but the flexibility of the online format may be of benefit as well.

CCCS has already laid groundwork for the governor's desire to improve online education, according to CCCS spokesperson Paige Dorr. She said 27% of community college students take at least course online each year. The California Community Colleges Online Initiative will help improve students' access to courses and increase the rates of transfer and degrees earned.

One component of the initiative would be more options for students to obtain college credit by exam, with exams being proposed in core courses for associate degrees for transfer students as well as remedial courses.

Locating facilities to conduct classes is another concern stemming from overcrowding. Some colleges, such as Community College of Denver, have been innovative in combating the issue by creating makeshift classrooms. The school has used staff lounges, offices and conference centers as classrooms and held classes in areas of the on-campus student center.

Other options to combat overcrowding, though not always popular, include schools raising their academic and admissions standards to allow for more selectivity with students and increasing tuition.

What Students Can Do

A few years back, students at Community College of Denver voted to pay a fee to help pay for a Student Learning and Success Building, which would provide more room and classroom space. Pueblo Community College has moved some of its courses online and eliminated others.

Students can also take the proactive approach by exercising other options to deal with overcrowding at their colleges and universities.

Instead of focusing on in-state public colleges, students may want to consider expanding their search to private schools and schools out of state. Recruiters like pursuing students from out of state and some have made it part of their recruiting strategy, partially because students will pay significantly more in tuition. But in some cases, paying out-of-state tuition may actually still be cheaper than the cost of tuition at certain colleges in-state. Extensive research can help students better formulate a better fit and help them achieve their degree in the time they prefer.

Prospective college students should also consider the benefits of credit by examinations. For example, students can knock out several hours of required course work by successfully passing College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams. By accumulating enough college credit, students can bypass many of the introductory college courses that often fill up quickly.

Overcrowding is not just limited to a certain region, or even institution type. It's a serious problem that is affecting several colleges and universities in the U.S. There needs to be action to relieve the strain on students who cannot take required courses because they are full. These students may be forced to delay transferring and/or graduation, or they may take on a heftier course load the following semester.

The truth is overcrowding did not become a problem overnight, and there's no quick fix for it. Because of large college and university systems such as California's institutions further pulling the curtains back on overcrowding, there's a heightened sense of urgency to resolve the issue before more of the nation's students have to suffer. Senator Steinberg's initiative to propose SB 520 is a step in the right direction and indication that there is some headway in addressing overcrowding. Amending the bill to reflect the concerns of UC's faculty members is a great example of the type of collaborative effort that will be necessary moving forward to fully resolve university overcrowding.