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Bursting at the seams: Has WWC sacrificed quality for quantity?

Elizabeth Bonham, staff writer

Part 1: Academics

In response to the national economic crisis, colleges nationwide are tightening their belts, raising tuition, and increasing admissions. In his latest presidential report, Sandy Pfieffer insinuated that Warren Wilson escaped such changes in its standards, writing that “our enrollment, financial aid budget, and retention for this semester were on target…” But with the largest incoming freshman class in college history and a 22 percent student population increase over the last ten years, it seems that Wilson’s capacity to retain the standards of education, student life, and opportunity that it advertises is bursting at the seams.

This series will examine changes happening in various areas of the college triad as a result of a growing student population. This installment will discuss academic affairs.

Because college admissions anticipated a lower enrollment and higher drop out rate this year as a result of national economic trends, they admitted a freshman class greater than the capacity the college could handle. Admissions dean Richard Blomgren supplied the information that with 249 incoming freshmen this school year and nearly 100 transfers, the current enrollment is over 900 students.

In print and on its web page, Wilson boasts its average 17 student class size, appealing to applicants who look for an intimate learning environment, small student to teacher ratio, and personal interaction and availability of faculty. But with more students and a financially restricted faculty body, these qualities begin to suffer.

Small departments like philosophy and global studies have seen an increase in students and a decrease in faculty. Global Studies Professor David Abernathy calls the situation a “crunch,” noting a decrease in the “ability for depth with student/faculty relationships.” Abernathy noted the need to “avoid letting in students just to balance the budget.”

Gary Hawkins, director of creative writing and first year seminars, also noted the need for capped class sizes in order to ensure adequate student to teacher attention. “…if  enrollment goes up, it can’t be absorbed by adding more students to existing sections,” he said, “I have to add more sections. This spring I added two sections of the course to handle the overflow demand from the fall combined with projected numbers of new arrivals.”

With faculty body talk of fundraising campaigns and warnings from the presidential reports of increased tuition, the issue of sacrificing academic quality for financial reasons becomes a serious one. With academic buildings that have not been renovated for expansion since the early 1990s when enrollment was 22 percent smaller, students cram into labs when there appears an increasing need for lecture halls.

To accommodate a larger freshman class, required courses such as First Year Seminars and College Composition have necessarily added sections, giving professors more courses to teach and less time to concentrate on individual students. Hiring a high percentage of adjuncts instead of full time faculty in order to cut salary costs reduces the availability of professors for students where office hours are minimal. Larger student to teacher ratios become problematic not just in the classroom, but for advising.

For the 2008-09 academic year, tuition (not including room and board) was set at $22,666 and the total incoming students were 359. If, as President Pfieffer assures campus, Wilson remains “steadfast” in its mission, finances should be directed towards improving the issues that exist, rather than attracting additional students that the academic departments can not handle.


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