Students frustrated with long waitlists for upper-level computer science classes

Monday, December 9, 2019 - 6:14pm

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Design by Sherry Chen

Engineering sophomore Conner Hein, who studies Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, went into backpacking for next semester’s classes with a plan. 

When his registration period rolled around, however, Hein realized the classes he wanted had already been filled to capacity. He found himself number 40 and number 60 on two waitlists, which as of Tuesday night are both around a hundred students long.

Because of lengthy waitlists for most of the upper-level computer science classes he is interested in taking, Hein said his experience registering for classes has been a “battle of lowering expectations.” Though upper-level classes are important for students to find an area to specialize in, Hein explained he has instead had to settle for whatever classes he can get into.

“I’m in a situation where I’m taking absolutely minimum credit trying to get by, and even if you do get into upper-level CS classes, they’re not the ones you want,” Hein said. “It feels like you’re not coming here for the reason you came here for.” 

The University of Michigan’s computer science program is consistently ranked among the best programs across the country. Over the last five to 10 years, the University’s EECS department, particularly the Computer Science Engineering sub-department, has seen immense growth.

Enticed by the potential of a six-figure salary out of college in a booming job market, more students nationally are interested in studying computer science, including the University. In under a decade, the number of students who have declared a CSE major has more than quadrupled, from 317 students in fall 2010 to 1,320 students in fall 2019. In that same time-frame, enrollment in the LSA computer science major has increased more than 16 times, from 43 students in fall 2010 to 719 students in fall 2019.

The increase of students in the major has translated to an increase of students enrolled in various computer science courses. For instance, EECS 281, a prerequisite course to most upper-level EECS classes, has seen substantial growth. According to data shared with The Daily by Steven Crang, CSE Manager for Communications and Marketing, 386 students took the class in the 2010-2011 school-year, while 1,409 students were enrolled in the class in the 2018-2019 school-year.

This data reflects an occupational landscape in which a computer science degree is more in demand than ever. Despite the fact that the number of U.S. undergraduates majoring in computer science has more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, research suggests the number of computer science-related jobs still “far outpaces” the number of students with bachelor degrees in the subject. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for computer and information research scientists is projected to grow 16 percent from 2018 to 2028, which is “much faster than the average for all occupations.”

In trying to keep up with increasing demand for computer science education, the CSE department at the University has ramped up hiring new faculty as well. In fact, Crang’s data shows the CSE department has grown by almost 40 percent in the last five years. The department, which had 50 tenure track professors and eight lecturers in fall 2013, has expanded to 60 tenure track faculty and 20 lecturers in fall 2019. 

Peter Chen, the CSE Chief Program Advisor and a professor in the EECS department, said the department has worked hard to hire more faculty. Chen explained the department has also hired more adjunct instructors, sometimes graduate students, who are not permanent faculty members. However, he said it is difficult, if not impossible, to hire more instructors at the rate of growth in student enrollment, especially as other universities and high-paying jobs in the private sector compete for many of the same qualified candidates.

Chen explained the department’s main initiative has been to increase class sizes dramatically. While upper-level classes used to have about 20 to 50 students to one instructor, classes have now ballooned to 150 to 200 students to increase the availability of these classes.

However, Chen, who also teaches upper-level EECS classes, noted there comes a tradeoff with increasing the student-to-teacher ratio.

“That’s probably not great for students or teachers, because it’s really hard at that scale to give adequate attention to each student, which you’d like to as a teacher, and I think students would like as well,” Chen said.

To increase class availability, Chen explained certain classes have begun experimenting with online-only sections in which students watch lecture recordings instead of attending lectures in a designated classroom. Yet, with this solution, the department should remember that the University is not an online-only college, Chen said. 

At the same time, Chen explained the department has tried to limit demand for computer science classes. Recently, the department limited students to only registering for two upper-level EECS classes at a time, which Chen said has extended opportunity for those who register later in the process. In addition, enrollment in these classes are prioritized for majors and minors of computer science who need them to graduate.

Despite these reforms, students who recently registered for their next semester classes have still experienced waitlists that have hundreds of people. As one post in a University student Facebook group noted, waitlists are sometimes a similar size to that of the class itself. 

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Courtesy of student Facebook group

According to Rackham student Sharang Karve, a first-year student in the College of Engineering, the problem is further exacerbated as students feel compelled to register for more classes than they intend on taking.

“If you don’t get into a certain class, you waitlist for two others,” Karve said. “Now, when you waitlist for two others, that’s blocking another person to register for that class… It’s a snowball effect. They don’t really know which ones they’re going to get into, so the blanket answer is to waitlist for everything and just hope you get into one.”

The University course registration system assigns students a time to register based on the number of credits they have, so students with the most credits register first. However, a recent op-ed in The Daily has argued this system favors students from better-resourced high schools, where students have more access and support in taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, and thus arrive at the University with more college credit.

Engineering senior Yilin Yang agreed with this sentiment, noting he came from a relatively well-resourced high school where he took many AP classes. Therefore, Yang said, he came into his freshman year with a substantial amount of credits.

“I had a much easier time registering for classes,” Yang said. “In a sense, I feel that having all those college credits allowed me to cut to the beginning of the line.” 

To Karve, the imbalance of supply and demand within the computer science majors also translates to a thinner spread of resources for students in the department in general. Thus, though he noted he has been satisfied with his education, Karve said he has warned prospective students against considering the University for a computer science education. 

“Lately, I’ve been cautioning people against coming into Michigan CS because of overly-long waitlists and not knowing how many resources are actually available,” Karve said. “Even things like office hours have become, over the past two or three years, it’s become a really dire situation.”

According to Karve, lines for office hours can be hours-long, and students may not get help before the designated time is over. Hein noted similar experiences and said he “doesn’t even bother going to office hours” for this reason. 

Yang is also an instructional aide for an upper-level EECS class, and he mentioned he is not speaking for the University but instead from his own personal experiences. According to Yang, office hour lines and questions posted to Piazza, an online platform for students to ask questions for other students and instructors, have increased substantially.

“As student instructors, we aren’t actually required to stay at our office hours for hours past they’ve officially ended or clear up the entire Piazza queue,” Yang said. “Though we might do so just out of extra effort. Still, it doesn’t affect me so much, it’s worse for students who have more difficulty for students to get one-on-one time with an instructor.” 

As other universities face similar dilemmas, some have taken steps to restrict the number of students who can declare computer science and other related majors. 

For example, at the University of California Berkeley, a school with one of the top computer science programs in the world, students intending to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science must apply to the major as high schoolers applying for admission into the university. Many other colleges such as the University of Maryland and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have similar systems.

Though that option has been in discussion, Chen said the department has consistently decided not to implement enrollment controls because the department hopes to serve anyone who would like to study computer science. However, Chen noted this means there is the struggle of adequately servicing an increasingly higher number of students.

Karve claimed the decision of the EECS department to remain open to all students helps it distinguish itself from comparable programs at other universities.

“Other schools have applications for the major, basically barring the number of students that can enter into the major,” Karve said. “Our department doesn’t want to do that, because one of the main drawing points for Michigan Engineering is the fact that you don’t have to do that.”

On the national level, there has also been discussion concerned about how these measures limit enrollment. Some worry it may discourage students from backgrounds that are already underrepresented in computer science fields, such as female, Black, Latinx, low-income and/or first-generation students, from pursuing a computer science education. 

Concerned individals argue that requiring students to apply to the major alongside applying for admission advantages those who are already interested or experienced with computer science. This, however, is more likely for students who had access to computer science education in high school or even earlier. 

Though he is concerned about the issues facing the University’s EECS department and similar departments around the country, Yang said he is glad the University is trying to resolve the problem without limiting the number of people who can declare the major. 

“One of the impressions that I’ve had of the computer science department is that it takes equity and fairness for its students very seriously,” Yang said. “It genuinely does have the best interests of all of its students in mind.”

Chen noted the current situation is difficult. However, Chen said the department is intent on increasing supply as much as it can.

“The department is keenly aware of the problem, and we’re working as hard as we can to fix it,” Chen said. “It’s just hard to react to such a sharp enrollment spike.”