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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Swelling class sizes result of dwindling state dollars

Chris Roush, center, from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, worries about the impact of larger classes on his students' skills development.

Every year since Holden Thorp was named chancellor in 2008, he has had to grapple with the challenge of state budget cuts.

From the beginning, he pledged he would do everything he could to protect the classroom and preserve the quality of the undergraduate experience.

But this year, Thorp warned, would be different. As he reminded members of the Board of Trustees last week, “We are running out of ways to do that.”

Since 2008, the University has absorbed more than $231 million in total state cuts, which have been focused primarily on administrative areas and measures to improve efficiency rather than instructional areas. The University’s centers and institutes, for example, have absorbed cuts of 31 percent, and Finance and Administration has had its state funding reduced by 32 percent.

The total permanent state budget cut this year alone amounted to $100.7 million (17.9 percent), which was offset with a transfer of $20 million from UNC Health Care. But those cuts will have an impact next year.

Because of the cumulative effect of the reductions in state funding, there is no money this year to allocate toward faculty retention or offer new contracts to all fixed-term faculty.

And students will feel the sting of budget cuts by having fewer course sections to choose from and by the swelling number of students in the available classes.

“We have lost 556 course sections, which means that there are 16,232 fewer classroom seats available for students,” Thorp said. “These are all tangible, practical impacts that we are concerned about.”

 Less time to teach

From his vantage point teaching a newswriting course in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Chris Roush calculates the cumulative damage, not in dollars cut, but in minutes lost working with students.

The two-and-a-half-hour course is a professional skills development class that is at the core of what the school does, said Roush, who also serves as senior associate dean.

 

Roush spends the first 45 minutes of each class introducing a new concept for the students to master. Students spend the remaining time completing a writing assignment to apply what they have learned.

“I’d like to be able to spend five minutes with each student every period,” Roush said.

This past spring, Roush said, newswriting courses had an average of 16.58 students. This fall, the classes are averaging 18.

“Sometimes now, I find myself just glancing over a student’s shoulder,” Roush said. He feels rushed, compelled to use the time trying to find the students who are truly struggling.

As a result, the students who suffer the most, he believes, are those who have mid-range skills because they do not always get the time from him they need.

Interim Dean Dulcie Straughan said enrollment levels in 23 sections of the school’s skills classes this semester are higher than the recommended limit established by the school’s accrediting organization – some by as many as six or seven students per class.

“Our accrediting body says that 15 students in a newswriting course is the perfect number,” Straughan said. “Even in good times, that number has been hard to hit, but we have always been good at keeping the number below 18.”

She added, “Luckily enough, all our newswriting labs have a maximum of 21 computers in them, which means no matter how bad things get, we can’t go any higher than that.”

 Impact on arts and sciences

The College of Arts and Sciences – where faculty teach 86 percent of the University’s total undergraduate credit hours – has acutely felt the sting of budget cuts as class sizes have inched upward, said Dean Karen Gil.

“Thanks to faculty, graduate students and staff working harder with less support, we’ve continued to keep the number of academic credit hours steady, despite more than three years of significant state budget cuts,” she said.

Keeping the availability of credit hours steady has also required a shift to larger classes that Gil worries will inevitably affect the classroom experience, and if the current trend continues, could threaten Carolina’s national reputation.

The number of seminars and classes within the college with fewer than 20 students decreased by 18 percent from the 2008–09 academic year to 2010–11. During the same period, the number of classes with 40 to 49 students increased by 22.5 percent, and the number of classes with 100 to 299 students increased by nearly 17 percent.

When U.S. News & World Report released its 2012 rankings of “America’s Best Colleges” this month, Carolina retained its place as the fifth best public university in the country. But when it comes to class size it is losing ground to the top four public universities, Gil said.

At Berkeley, 62 percent of classes had fewer than 20 students; at UCLA and Virginia, 52 percent; and at Michigan, 48 percent. At Carolina, only 37 percent of classes had 20 students or fewer.

“We’re grateful to our faculty, graduate students and staff for ensuring that Carolina students still get an exceptional education,” Gil said. “But we worry that if state budget cuts continue at this level, the Carolina experience will erode.”