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After a year of low enrollment, Princeton sees a spike in competition for seats in classes

<h5>Percentage of class spots filled, by department</h5>
<h6>Charlie Roth / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Percentage of class spots filled, by department
Charlie Roth / The Daily Princetonian

After an academic year defined by decreased enrollment and the COVID-19 pandemic, course registration increased this year. Heightened academic selectivity brought challenges for many students, especially those concentrating in or pursuing certificates in popular departments and programs. 

This semester had the highest percentage of class spots taken on record, dating back to spring 2019. Over 73 percent of total spots offered were taken this semester, compared to 71 percent last semester and previous semesters hovering in the mid-to-high 60s. The second semester increase may in part be due to the fact that some students will drop classes before the academic year concludes.

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“A lot of courses were filled up very quickly. So I have to go through course lists with my zees and try to find things that were available, a lot of scrolling through and me saying ‘no, actually, I was gonna recommend that one, but can’t,’” explained Christian Potter ’22, a peer academic advisor and School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) concentrator. 

Potter struggled to find effective ways to help his first-year advisees. “The strategy was always then to pivot and try to find other classes that would work as sort of substitutes. The other thing is, you know, most of these classes tended to be courses that were courses that fulfill some of these core requirements. That meant that a lot of seniors and juniors were trying to enroll in them first. And they wouldn't leave those courses,” he said.

The three most popular concentrations — computer science (COS), economics (ECO), and SPIA — have attracted additional student interest this semester. COS and SPIA both experienced a significant spike this semester, filling 77 percent and 89 percent of spots, respectively.

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To assess an additional element of course enrollment, The Daily Princetonian reached out to TigerSnatch, a student-run application that enables students to monitor in-demand courses and receive notifications when spots become available. TigerSnatch shared anonymized data logs for this semester’s add/drop period with the ‘Prince.’

The creators of TigerSnatch, Shannon Heh ’23, Nicholas Padmanabhan ’23, Byron Zhang '23, say they created the website because they faced difficulty when enrolling in courses.

“We’re glad that so many Princeton students benefited from TigerSnatch,” they wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “We were inspired to build TigerSnatch in COS333 because we observed that there were no working systems that provided TigerSnatch’s functionality, and we personally felt the frustrations of being locked out of courses that filled quickly. Being able to contribute in our own small way to the Princeton community has made this a fulfilling and meaningful experience for all of us.”

At the end of the add/drop period, visual arts (VIS) boasted the most TigerSnatch notification subscriptions, with 210 notifications across 14 classes. SPIA was second, with 182 subscriptions across 13 classes, and COS was third, with 175 subscriptions across 13 classes. A student may request notifications for multiple classes. 

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When considering classes listed by multiple departments, commonly referred to as “cross-listed,” the ‘Prince’ categorized the course by the first listed department. Several professors with whom the ‘Prince’ spoke endorsed this practice.



David Walker, the director of undergraduate studies in the COS department, noted in an email to the ‘Prince’ that enrollments in the program “seem to get higher and higher.”

“We do our best to fulfill Princeton student needs, but there can be a tension between class size and our ability to deliver the material effectively,” Walker wrote.

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss explained why courses sometimes struggle with capacity. “This academic year is much more the norm than either of the past two,” he wrote. “It’s also not possible to have a full picture of course enrollments until after the April 1 deadline for students to drop a spring-term course.”

“For most courses, the listed capacity is based on historical enrollment and the size of the requested room,” Hotchkiss continued. “The listed capacity is not generally a hard cap on enrollment. (The exception is seminars, which are limited in size to ensure an appropriate academic experience.)”

Paul Lipton, the SPIA associate dean for undergraduate education, further articulated potential explanations for this semester’s enrollment increase.

“One of the reasons is that SPIA is one of the largest majors at the University,” he said. “The other issue that we’re having, and I suspect some of these other departments are having too, is finding preceptors to staff the precepts has gotten difficult. Part of the reason is that many programs reduced or stopped taking graduate students over the last couple of years — for example, sociology — and it’s those graduate students that typically serve as preceptors.”

Marion Young ’00, the executive director of the Lewis Arts Center, attributed the spike in interest in VIS courses to last year’s remote learning. 

“Doing visual arts remotely doesn’t always sound like the most, you know, fun plan,” she said. “So our sense is that there’s some pent-up kind of interest that might have been more spread out over the last three years. We’ll know more over the next year or two, if that trend continues.”

Jeffrey Whetstone, the director of the Visual Arts Program, said that the popularity of the department is becoming a “burden.”

“We only get a certain amount of funding for the faculty, and the growth of interest from Princeton’s student body in visual arts and the other departments around the Lewis Center has outpaced our capability to serve them,” he said.

The most popular lecture subscriptions on TigerSnatch were SPI 330: Population, Society, and Public Policy; COS 495: Special Topics in Computer Science: Web3: Blockchains, Cryptocurrencies, and Decentralization; and COS 484: Natural Language Processing. The classes attracted 59, 36, and 35 subscriptions, respectively.



The professor of SPI 330, Arun Hendi, was “honored” that his class held this standing and hopes this means that more people are getting interested in the class’s topic. 

“It was first come, first serve,” he said. “Once enrollment started, it filled up the next morning. And I started getting emails from students immediately about getting added to the waitlist, and I would forward their emails to the SPIA Undergraduate Office, and the very helpful people in that office keep an electronic waitlist that would allow students to enroll … I think that I got probably 50-plus emails.”

The professors of COS 495 and COS 484 did not respond to requests for comment.

All three of these classes are options to fulfill departmental requirements in their respective concentrations. Lipton theorized that SPI 330 was especially popular this semester in part because of faculty leave schedules. As course registration takes place by seniority, this issue disproportionately affects underclass students.

“It could be more difficult for someone to get into a set of required courses like SPIA 330, which was very quickly filled up because that is typically one of several different required core courses in a given semester for SPIA students. SPIA 330 happened to be the only one that was offered this semester because of faculty leave schedules,” Lipton said.

He later emphasized a point of hope for students: “Though we have 12 courses with waitlists, with five courses, we were able to get ultimately whoever wanted to get in, in.” He noted that SPIA only had four courses with waitlists last semester.

Others were not so lucky. Arlette Cojab ’24 says she was not able to get into the creative writing (CWR) courses she needed, and now faces a significantly more difficult path to getting a creative writing certificate. 

The Lewis Center for the Arts website states that “[c]andidates for the certificate normally take two 200-level courses in creative writing by the end of sophomore year,” a standard Cojab could not achieve. 

“I had applied to CWR 222, got waitlisted, and even though you’re allowed to apply for a spot in CWR 202 and 204 during add-drop, any spot would go within minutes and it was impossible to get one,” she explained. “I needed my second CWR course to apply for a certificate, but now I have to leave that behind, I guess.”

Students held 51 subscriptions to various sections of CWR 202 and 31 to CWR 204. While one user may subscribe to multiple sections of one course, Young says that applications for these two courses were “much higher than the last five-year average.”

Chloe Smith-Frank ’23 also expressed her frustrations in getting into classes in the psychology department and the stress that comes with the add/drop period.

“Seniors have [time] to pick classes, and then it closes, and then juniors the next day, and then sophomores, etc. And then you have to wait like three weeks for the regular add/drop to open. I think things would be a lot less stressful if they kept course enrollment open,” she said.

Jeremy Chizewer ‘22 argued that many students in the COS department face the same struggles.

“Despite having many options for fulfilling requirements, there are several classes that a large share of COS [students] desire, and several that very few students take. As a result, students often face the difficult choice between progressing toward their degree, and waiting for the best classes,” he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ 

Beyond the COS department, the ‘Prince’ found academic offerings of varying popularity. 

The ‘Prince’ calculated the number of seats filled per department each semester. For example, in Spring 2019, 79 percent of all available seats in Anthropology courses were filled.



Chizewer later noted that “[w]hile a likely conclusion is to remove enrollment limits, this only leads to overcrowded and understaffed classes, which is worse for students and professors. A better solution would be to expand the offerings and improve the quality of less popular courses, to distribute students more evenly.”

This enrollment difficulty comes just before the opening of New College East and New College West, which will increase the student body population by 10 percent. Both Lipton and Young acknowledged that the expansion of the student body will pose enrollment challenges.

“The question of growth of the student body is if we just take this year, is it an anomaly year?” Young asked. “Or is it a sign of something that, then, needs to be advocacy for more classes and more opportunities? But I don’t think it’s a case we can make until we see that increase in interest sustained, particularly in a post-pandemic world.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this piece misattributed a quote to Michael Hotchkiss. The statement should have been attributed to David Walker. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error and has updated the article accordingly.

Charlie Roth is a Staff News Writer and Assistant Data Editor for the ‘Prince’, focusing on local town coverage. He can be reached at charlieroth@princeton.edu or @imcharlieroth on Twitter or Instagram.

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