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I work for a small private college and today I received an e-mail from the registrar's office requesting me to raise the cap of two courses that I will be teaching in the spring since there are a few students on the waitlist. This e-mail was also copied to my department chair, who has not responded yet. If I say "yes" to this request, this would mean that I will need to work more without getting any compensation. Also, the quality of my courses may suffer as a result of raised caps. I do not think the college has any written rules or policies regarding this specific situation.

My Questions:

  1. In this case, do I have the right to decline the request, or should I always be submissive to such requests?
  2. Is it appropriate to negotiate with the college to "conditionally" raise the cap, such as requesting a bit more pay for teaching an additional number of students?

Another point: My college likes to raise the cap to allow students on the waitlist to take the desired courses. To me, this practice defeats the purpose of having a cap in the first place.

Edit

Initially, the registrar's office requested an increase in the cap of my courses by 20%. I respectfully declined the request, articulating my concerns. Surprisingly, this matter was brought to the attention of the academic dean by an unidentified source, not from the registrar's office. Subsequently, the dean unilaterally raised the cap by 10% without seeking my input or consultation. While I am not entirely satisfied with this resolution, it appears that my ability to influence the decision is limited. I find myself in a situation where I reluctantly accept the imposed changes.

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    How did your discussion with the department chair go? Jan 4 at 22:57
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    Of course the college wants students to get the courses they need to graduate in 4 years. If the course was not full would you accept lower pay?
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 4 at 23:09
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    Is the course required for major/graduation? Making a student pay for an extra semester because they can’t get into your course is not a good thing.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 4 at 23:14
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    Admitting 10 extra students to a lecture course beyond a cap of, say, 50, would increase your workload, but perhaps not by an unreasonable amount. Doubling the size of a 10 student seminar would be unreasonable. Jan 5 at 1:07
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    Why do you have a cap? There are hard caps and soft ones. "We ordered reagents based on 20 people and cannot get more in time" is a pretty clear signal that raising cap isn't really doable. On the other hand, "there are 20 chairs in this classroom right now" means that you need to sacrifice some student comfort but you can get 24 students in the class just fine. Jan 5 at 11:47

5 Answers 5

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Policies vary from place to place and even across different departments or colleges within the same university. I was at one point a department chair and handled various similar situations to what you are describing, and the precise details of the situation matter a lot. At my department the cap on the number of students can in some cases be a rather fictitious number (basically a placeholder that means almost nothing) that is easy to raise without any administrative implications - in such a scenario probably our administrative staff would make the change without consulting the instructor. In other cases raising the cap would amount to having the instructor do a teaching overload, which meant that they did not have to agree to do it. The precise rank of the instructor would also make a difference, since the employment of lecturers for example is governed by a collective bargaining agreement, whereas that of tenure-track faculty is governed by different rules and policies.

Bottom line, we can't say what the policies (and/or unwritten norms, which can also be a factor) are at your institution. However, if they phrased it as a request you can simply assume that you have discretion over the issue, and if you don't find the request reasonable, you can just say no and see if they'll push back.

However, I would caution you against asking for more compensation. While my experience is not with small schools, it seems to me that as a tenured faculty you shouldn't expect to have your salary adjusted on the basis of small details regarding the amount of work you do, which could reasonably vary quite a lot from semester to semester and from year to year. No department would appreciate having to deal with this level of pettiness from a tenured faculty member. What might make more sense is to ask for compensation not in the form of money but in the form of relief from some other work duties, such as service on a committee or other administrative work, if you feel (and can make the case to the chair) that that would be a fair bargain and prevent you from taking on an unreasonably high workload. Such a request might be declined, but it's unlikely it will be perceived negatively.

Finally, if we're talking about raising the cap by a few extra students, again it seems petty to quibble over such things. In that case you might as well say yes and profit from the good will you will be generating, which you are likely to be rewarded for at some unpredictable time in the future when you are the one who needs a favor.

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    It may be more appropriate to raise the salary issue in the course of ordinary performance reviews/promotion reviews/etc; flexibility and having taught more students than expected are enumerable examples of job performance.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 5 at 0:02
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    One semester, in one of my big lecture classes, supposedly capped at 125, the registrar put 135 students in my class. This wasn't a problem until the 6th week when I gave my first test and everyone showed up. I had 10 more students than functional seats. So I had the TA take 10 of them into the hall where they sat on the floor and wrote the test. My complaints fell on deaf ears. But one of the students called the Fire Marshall and suddenly ears were opened. There's an occupancy limit for lecture halls and the Fire Marshall is no one to mess with.
    – B. Goddard
    Jan 5 at 11:38
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    @BryanKrause Serious question - do you guys have actual performance reviews with actual salary implications?
    – xLeitix
    Jan 5 at 14:45
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    @xLeitix Yes; faculty can make a case for raises based on merit or equity. There's also the promotion calendar. My impression is that the review itself is mostly a formality (I am academic staff, not faculty) and I'm sure it depends on department but if faculty want to make a case for a salary adjustment that's the time to do it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 5 at 15:30
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    @A.R. The registrar has the number of seats in the computer. The keyword is "functional." At a school where the football coach makes $8M a year, I don't think there's any excuse for having 10% of all the seats in all lecture halls broken. As in the seat is missing or the writing surface is missing or a spring is sticking out of the seat. But that's the state of affairs. Or at least they could inventory and update the computer. Anyway, yes, I didn't bother to count the seats because they were supposed to be counted.
    – B. Goddard
    Jan 5 at 23:15
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When faced with requests to increase enrollment I usually agree, as long as the department ensures that I receive the teaching support I need. So - more TAs, graders, resources etc.

I think that flatly refusing is not reasonable. However, if you have concerns, absolutely raise them.

Make it about the students: You can say that your class is the size it is so as to ensure good learning outcomes, that you need additional support (be specific on that point), or perhaps even a co-instructor.

Whether you can ask for extra pay really depends on your contract. In my R1 university I can’t ask for extra pay if more students enroll, but there’s a standard ratio of students to teaching staff we need to maintain, so more students means more instructors. My contract does not say anything about maximum class sizes, just the number of courses I have to teach. What does yours say? If it says nothing then there’s very little you can do I believe.

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  • Thank you for your answer! My contract does not say anything about the number of students either.
    – Zuriel
    Jan 4 at 23:09
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    Don't forget room size, too...
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 4 at 23:12
  • @BryanKrause, when they raise the cap, they will find another room for this course.
    – Zuriel
    Jan 4 at 23:30
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    @Zuriel That's good, but I would certainly double check that it's the case; when I was a student it was quite common that this did not happen in overenrolled courses and that sometimes administration thought that some students would drop a course and didn't have any solution when they didn't.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 5 at 15:50
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    @Zuriel You are assuming a level of coordination and rationality that likely does not exist.
    – Elin
    Jan 8 at 22:00
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Generally speaking, course sizes are capped for a few primary reasons:

  1. To control the teacher-to-student ratio. I think that it is fairly widely believed / known that the fewer students in a class leads to better outcomes. Thus class sizes are capped in order to improve these teacher-to-student ratios.

  2. To limit teaching load. At a lot of institutions, contracts specify that an instructor will teach a fixed amount of "load".[1]

  3. Because classroom space is limited. The fire marshal (or local equivalent) limits the number of people that can be in a room at any one time, as cramming too many people into a room leads to safety problems. Capping a course is done for these safety reasons.[2]

  4. To ensure that last-minute registrants who need the course can get in. There are some classes which fulfill university or departmental requirements, which tend to "fill up" quickly. While more senior students typically get to register early, they sometimes forget or otherwise fail to register on time. Colleges will often set class size caps a bit low in such high-demand classes in order to ensure that they can slot in a graduating senior at the last minute.

When you are being asked to raise the cap for a class, you should consider why that cap exists, and who established that cap. Is it a cap imposed by facilities to meet fire code? a departmental cap to avoid overloading a faculty? or did you establish the cap to ensure that you have a number of students which you are capable of effectively teaching?

You should also consider why the registrar is asking for the cap to be raised. Is there a particular student who really needs to get into the class? or a cohort of students who got stuck without a class when another section closed due to low enrollment? or is there just more demand than expected?

These things should weigh into your decision (and, ultimately, it should be your decision, as the instructor).

For myself, I generally try to say "Yes" to requests to enroll one or two students beyond the cap. For one thing, I know that a large number of students are likely to drop in the first week or two (I teach math; many of my students are less prepared than they think they are, and bail when they learn that they actually have to turn in homework). I also think that it reflects well on me to be a team player, and demonstrate that I'm willing to help out the department / division / college when the need arises.

What I wouldn't do is make a fuss about compensation. I get paid a salary to teach classes. To an extent, I don't have to, because my contract ensures that I will be compensated appropriately—but I think that if a contract is silent on overload pay (and I really would recommend that you look into that), I don't think that you win points by asking for a pay bump. It comes across as kind of petty.

What you might ask for is a load reduction in the following semester, or a reduction in committee work, or some other mild perk in recognition of the extra work you are taking on by admitting more students into the class. However, even in this case, if you are only admitting one or two extra students, this may still come across as a bit petty.


[1] For example, my contract specifies that I will carry 16 load points every semester. I earn 1 load point for one Carnegie hour of contact time in a lecture, 0.7 load points for one Carnegie hour of lab time (not that I teach any lab classes, but means that a one credit, three hour lab is loaded at 2.1 points), etc. But these load computations assume a class with something like 25 or fewer students (I don't remember the exact number). For every student over that set number, I accrue additional load points. If I go over 18 load points, I earn an extra prorated bit of salary. So course caps exist to keep faculty from going into "overload".

[2] While working on my masters degree, I taught several sections of precalculus, with each section capped at a different, seemingly arbitrary number. Upon investigation, I learned that these caps were exactly tied to the capacity of the rooms in which these classes were scheduled to be taught.

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  • If the cap is because of a limited classroom size (your reason #3), then the faculty member wouldn't be asked to increase it. At any reasonable university in the US, the administrative staff would be aware of the physical capacity of the room and would know it's forbidden to increase the class cap beyond that number. What the administrators would likely do in such a case is contact the registrar's office (or equivalent office in charge of physical classroom space allocation) and ask to be allocated a bigger classroom, probably before or in parallel with asking for the instructor's consent.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 6 at 8:13
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    @DanRomik (1) The cap may be set because of capacity issues, but institutions will often set the cap at a few seats below the MAX capacity so that they can squeeze a few extra people in. But this often leads to a classroom that feels cramped (or, in one case, when a chair had gone missing, no place for a student to sit). (2) The first part of the post is really just to outline the reasons that the caps exist in the first place. Room capacity is a big one at a lot of institutions. Jan 6 at 12:39
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    (3) I intentionally tired to avoid giving a prescriptive answer, and merely tried to suggest the things that one might consider when deciding whether or not to add more students. And it is possible for a registrar to mess up and fill a room beyond capacity (if, for example, it is not the norm at an institution to cap classes because of room capacity, but there happen to be a couple of smaller classrooms with hard caps). Jan 6 at 12:40
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Generally speaking, I would anticipate that these decisions are a matter for the department to make. I would recommend that you have this conversation with your department chair. The specifics will vary from institution to institution, so it is hard to give detailed recommendations.

If you are concerned that the enrollment increase will have a significant impact on your workload, then I would suggest you let your department chair know about your concerns. If you prefer to not increase enrollment, I would suggest you let your department chair know that as well, and ask them to support you in declining the request. Then ask your department chair what they'd like you to do, and follow their instructions.

In any reasonably operating institution, assuming you have been a reasonable citizen of your department and a reasonable team player, I would expect that a department chair would want to try to accommodate your preferences; and if there is some overriding reason why that's not feasible, I would expect them to share that with you as well. I think approaching this from the perspective of sharing your perspectives and then asking your chair what they want you to do will help set an appropriate tone for that conversation, as they are the boss and decision-maker for these purposes.

It would be reasonable and routine to ask your chair whether the department will provide additional resources, particularly TAs and/or graders. It is institution-dependent on how these are allocated. Normally, a significant increase in course size can increase workload, so it is reasonable to ask that the resources provided match the new enrollment size, and if it's not possible to provide resources that are customary in your department for a class of the adjusted size, then it would be reasonable to let your department chair that you are not comfortable expanding the course without those resources. This doesn't mean you should necessarily expect to receive extra resources, if the resources you're already receiving are customary and routine for classes of the updated size, but it might mean that. Only you and your chair will know the policies and norms for allocation of resources to courses.

If you're still not sure how to proceed, find a senior faculty member in your department who you trust and who is familiar with the department's practices, and ask them for their advice and input before you talk to the department chair. They will know what is customary for the culture of your department. Different departments might have different expectations, and only someone in your organization will know what that might be.

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This answer attempts to address something I don't think is adequately covered in the other answers (to date). It is a supplement, I think.

My inclination, personally, is to agree to such requests and I have done so in a couple of instances that increased the number of students by 25%. In one case I was given extra (experienced) help for grading and in another just an apology that extra help couldn't be arranged as no one else was able to do it. But it was a temporary thing, not something that occurred regularly.

But the reason for this answer is that the needs of the students and their overall programs needs to be taken in to account, not just the needs and desires of the individual faculty member. If the course is an elective for which other possibilities exist it is easy to say no and hard to apply pressure from above.

But if the course is one in the major that is required and important for other later things, then saying no might disrupt the education of some students (see below). For example, a course in a sequence might be important to most students. Likewise an upper level required course might not have options for students about to graduate. All this is especially true if the course isn't scheduled for another year. In such cases, you might just need to "grin & bear it". You might, in some cases, need to adjust the pedagogy to make it possible, but that is generally a possibility in any case.


In an oversubscribed course it might be possible for the registrar or department head to select out a few students who don't really need the course at the moment. For example, some non-majors take some courses, but have other opportunities for electives. And, some courses don't require others as prerequisites, so a student schedule might be rearranged without loss to them.

It might also be possible to negotiate with the head that you drop off of some committee that takes time and effort so that it doesn't impact your research too much. Liberal arts colleges tend to be heavy on the service requirement, so this might be especially open to you.

If you were the department head I'd have some additional suggestions and you might consider raising them. One option is to split the course into two sections. Perhaps you teach both and someone else covers some other part of your teaching load, or someone else teaches the new section. For a course scheduled annually it might be possible (or not) to schedule the course in the following term and rearrange student schedules so that no one is adversely affected.

Another, somewhat odd, arrangement, is to factor out the few very best students and have them take the course as an independent study. You might be able to manage them separately with minimal guidance, perhaps by have them as a collaborative learning team that reports to you and you push along. I'm assuming small numbers, of course.


I'll also suggest with others that requesting salary increase is probably a non starter, and that speaking with colleagues is worth the effort.

Hmmm. Maybe the dean can find you a bit of travel money for the following year if you say yes now, they might hesitate to say no later (yes, a bit devious - sorry).

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