“W hen planning your classes for next semester, list as many backups as you can,” my major advisor tells me every semester when it’s time to register for courses. “You never know what might happen, and you don’t want to end up under the unit cap.”
Calculating the number of units to take per semester is a process familiar to many UC Berkeley students, because falling under the minimum number of required units is a constant threat. But why, one might ask, is it so easy to fall under the minimum units when there are countless classes to choose from? The answer lies in the class sizes and the enrollment dates, which make it difficult to enroll in classes before they get full. Often, when my enrollment date arrives — much later than most since freshmen are typically the last in line — most of my first-choice classes are already full. My backups are usually also full, which leaves me in danger of not fulfilling my first-year requirements. Physics 7A, Physics for Scientists and Engineers, for example, is among my lower-division major requirements, which means that my college’s curriculum has planned for me to take this class before my third year so that I’ll be prepared to enroll in my upper division courses. But for every semester that I have been in Berkeley, this class has been full by the time my enrollment period began, and I found myself left with the difficult choice of staying on the waitlist or looking for alternative ways to take the course through summer sessions or at a local community college.
I’m certainly not the only student who has considered these alternatives at one point or another. But these options not only create extra expenses for those who would not otherwise enroll in summer sessions, but they also cut into existing summer plans. Ironically, UC Berkeley’s website promises to provide students with “a wealth of campus resources” when the school cannot even guarantee that students can complete all of their lower division requirements in time.
Ironically, UC Berkeley’s website promises to provide students with “a wealth of campus resources” when the school cannot even guarantee that students can complete all of their lower division requirements in time.
Since not all students have the time and resources for summer courses, many have no choice but to stay on waitlists that give them the slightest chance of being able to get off. This is especially problematic for students whose intended majors require the completion of a range of classes with notoriously long waitlists, or those who require students to declare their major by their sophomore year, such as the business administration and molecular and cell biology programs.
Last semester, while talking to a friend, a first-year molecular biology student, I learned that although he was number one on the waitlist for his English class, he still had to stay on the waitlist for over a month. Even worse — because waitlisted courses count toward the total number of units that a student can enroll in, my friend was unable to register for any other course as he waited during this period. Listening to him share his frustrations, I realized how uncertain and stressful the enrollment process is for students, and asked myself if change is possible.
The convoluted enrollment system and the extensive waitlist are mainly caused by a surplus of students and a shortage of instructors. UC Berkeley has a student-teacher ratio of 20:1, which is even larger than comparable institutions of similar sizes, such as UCLA (18:1) and USC (9:1). UC Berkeley’s student population has ballooned over the past decades. In 2002, UC Berkeley had a total of 23,835 undergraduate students, a figure that expanded to more than 32,000 in 2022. Over the same time period, the total number of professors has actually decreased (with 1,541 professors in 2002 and 1,505 professors in 2022). The numbers lead to a concerning imbalance within UC Berkeley’s education system; while the number of enrolled students in need of educational support and mentorship is rapidly expanding, campus fails to meet the demand accompanying this expansion.
In 2002, UC Berkeley had a total of 23,835 undergraduate students, a figure that expanded to more than 32,000 in 2022. Over the same time period, the total number of professors has actually decreased (with 1,541 professors in 2002 and 1,505 professors in 2022).
Even with waitlists in place, the school’s increasing population and the static faculty number are causing its class sizes to expand dramatically. Large classes limit students’ abilities to interact with their professors both inside and outside of class. Not only does this make it harder for students to engage with lecture material, but it also impacts their ability to seek out research opportunities and letters of recommendation, which are essential elements of the application process for graduate schools and full-time jobs. For example, according to Berkeleytime, a website that tracks enrollment across all courses, this semester’s Data 8 class enrolled a total of 1,915 students, a number significantly higher than in fall 2020 when the course only had 1,345 students. In such circumstances, where professors may not be available to meet the demands of all students in the class, students are able to consult their graduate student instructors, or GSIs. But GSIs may not always be available since they, too, are students with their own responsibilities.
Although course enrollment and a lack of resources remain legitimate concerns for UC Berkeley students, there may be a solution, seeing how other schools of similar sizes have found feasible strategies to cope with this challenge. UC Berkeley’s course requirements for certain majors, as well as the class structures, can be redesigned to accommodate the waitlisted students. For example, UCLA has mandated that its departments create new courses each semester to give students more course options to help them satisfy their requirements.
Although course enrollment and a lack of resources remain legitimate concerns for UC Berkeley students, there may be a solution, seeing how other schools of similar sizes have found feasible strategies to cope with this challenge.
Of course, enrollment continues to be a challenge both for UC Berkeley officials and students, and it looks like change is going to be a slow process. In a school where students are at increased risk of not satisfying their degree requirements, they should seek out all available resources, whether it be academic advisors, peer mentorship opportunities or the academic handbook. While these opportunities will help ensure that students can prioritize enrolling in the classes that count toward their requirements with as much guidance as possible, they should also promptly address their concerns to school officials. The difficulty of enrolling in classes and the mental burden of the process should not be normalized despite how common it is. Acknowledging the problem is the first step to collaborating toward a feasible and effective solution.