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Swarthmore academic quality is dropping

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Year after year, Swarthmore College ranks as one the top institutions in the country. This year, the college currently ranks as number ten on Forbes’ Top Colleges list. Although a top ten ranking is not new for the college, it is still concerning. The reality is that the college has not been performing better, but rather worse, in Forbes’ rankings over the past several years. We once ranked as high as three, but have since clearly fallen to the tenth spot.

The downward trend is a concern to some, but for many students at Swarthmore, there is nothing to worry about. Swarthmore is an academically challenging institution, and students get reminded of that nearly every day. For some reason, many students correlate rigor of academics with quality of academics, and thus have no reason to fear that Swarthmore may one day fall out of the top ten.

But could they be wrong? Has the quality of academics at Swarthmore declined over the past several years, and has this decline been reflected in our ranking? The reality is that sometimes, students, faculty, and administration turn the other way and ignore the flaws within the college that have begun to harm the academic experience of Swarthmore students, and instead hide behind the statement that, “Swat is one of the best colleges in the country.”

We at the Phoenix no longer believe that Swarthmore is a great school, and that hiding behind the truth of the past has tarnished the quality of academics at Swarthmore. The decline in quality can be seen not only inside the classroom, but in the curriculum and academic structure overall.

Swarthmore brags about having small classes, but in reality, classes at Swarthmore are not very small, especially in departments with high enrollment. Although the student to teacher ratio is eight to one, according to the Common Data Set (most data in this article is pulled from the CDS), the average class size at Swat is 16.1. Some would say that the size of the larger classes are compensated by smaller subsections. However, the subsections are not much smaller than the classes, averaging at 14.3.

Although 16.1 is surely a small number, especially in comparison to larger institutions, the college uses several techniques to effectively lower this number as a statistic without actually providing students with the benefit of smaller classes. It is easy to see this if we ask the question, “Do most students at Swarthmore take courses that are, on average, of smaller sizes.”

The answer is no. Most students at Swarthmore College take courses that are much greater than 20 people in size. According to the Common Data Set, the top five degrees at Swarthmore are Economics at 16.4 percent of students, Political Science at 12.8 percent, Biology at 12 percent, and Computer Science at 10.6 percent, and Mathematics at 8.1 percent. These five majors alone sum to 59.9 percent of all degrees given by Swarthmore. Since about six of every ten students will major in one of these five departments, Swarthmore’s academic quality heavily relies on the experience of the students within these departments.

Unfortunately, in the top five departments, many of them have class sizes that are above twenty students, effectively falling into the “medium size” range. Microeconomics and Macroeconomics, which are both courses required for the Economics major, are both about 100 students in size every semester. With the exception of honors courses, many upper-level Economics courses are much greater than 20 students in size. Cellular and Molecular Biology is easily over 100 students every semester, with labs usually greater than 20 students. Without including the incoming freshman class, 38 students are already registered for this class for next fall. Every Intro to Computer Science section is easily over 30 students. Many reports have been posted before regarding how the Computer Science department is severely understaffed at the college.

Even in departments that fall out of the top five, some of the most important courses are large. Organic Chemistry, one of the most difficult courses at the college, will currently feature a robust 58 students. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course is set to feature 61 students with no subsections to complement the course. General Physics with Biomedical Applications has already reached 53 students for the upcoming semester.  

“At least courses are getting smaller.” This statement is false. In Fall 2010, the average class size was 14.8 and rose to 15.7 in Fall 2015. Subsections are rising in size as well. In the Fall 2000 semester, subsections were 9.9 students on average. In Fall 2016, they were 14.3.

“So the courses might be a bit larger than we hoped, but at least everyone always gets their classes.” Wrong again. For this upcoming semester, 74 Computer Science students were lotteried out of courses. This included upperclassmen in the department lotteried from upper-level courses. Many courses at Swarthmore end up being small because the college lotteries out students and forces them to take other courses in departments with empty seats. Foundation Drawing has already reached its enrollment limit of ten each for both sections, needing to lottery students to do so. Real Analysis I, a Mathematics major requirement, is also a vital course that was also lotteried out several students.  

It is easy to see that 16.1 is a skewed number, and that the College, on average, cannot provide its students with easily accessible small courses.   

“The College is financially in a place to fix this.” One could argue this statement is false. For the last four years, the College’s operating budget has broken even, so the College is not “losing money” in that sense. However, other financial trends are concerning. The Market Value of our endowment has decreased over the past three years. This is concerning because not only is the spending rate as a percentage of endowment been the highest since 2009-2010, but also that the college is not being compensated from its spending by return on investment. In 2013-2014, the spending rate was 3.5 percent and the College received 17.8 percent return on investment. In 2015-2016, the spending rate rose to 4.0 percent but return on investment dropped 19 points, falling to -1.6 percent. The College is not only eating into its endowment to cover operating costs and projects, but is also losing money on its investments.  

Although class sizes are an important factor in determining academic quality, it’s not the only thing. Other things to consider for academic quality include advising, quality of professors, resources outside the classroom, and quality control techniques. However, some students on campus would say that Swarthmore College also fails to meet its own standards in those categories, but that discussion is for another time.

We at the Phoenix encourage the administration to fix this problem by adding more sections to larger classes, which will decrease the average number of students per section and limit the total number of students lotteried out of classes. To do this, the administration might want to consider analyzing the amount of funds given to each department to make sure departments with larger numbers of students receive more adequate funding.

Hopefully, the College can find a way to reverse its current track and begin providing students with the educational experience we were promised.

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  1. The class size statistic has always been calculated in a way that is unreflective of the actual student experience, be it at Swat or anywhere else. More concerning is the lack of quality junior tenure-track scholars the school has been able to hire. With that comes a slow, creeping decline in academic prestige. The emphasis (as demanded by students) on administrative expansion and the emphasis (as demanded by students) on achieving a “diverse” faculty in an unrealistic timeframe has led the college to drop some of its hiring standards. While the college seems to still hire great teachers, they no longer produce the quality and quantity of scholarship that previous generations of hires have produced. This has less of an impact on the lived student experience, but quite a significant impact on its reputation within the academic community. This tradeoff may well be worth it, but it’s worrisome that nobody seems to be willing to notice and discuss it.

  2. The title of this article is “Swarthmore academic quality is dropping.” What do we expect when we read it? An explanation for how the academic quality of Swarthmore is dropping. What do we get?

    Most of this article is focused on the student to teacher ratio and classroom sizes — two variables that have been proven not to be good indicators of the academic quality of an institution. By that logic, any other large institution would be bad, which is not true, even by the questionable Forbes’ standards which you chose to adopt.

    You seem to acknowledge that the problem is a lot more complicated than that. You say that there are other variables such as advising and quality of professors, which are actually essential for understanding whether the quality of Swarthmore’s education has declined or not. And yet, you say that this discussion is for another time, which makes me think that maybe the entire article should have been postponed for another time. If you can’t talk about what matters, maybe you shouldn’t be talking about it at all.

    The extent of your ignorance becomes clear when we see what your solution for the problem is. Even though you believe that the problem is a lot more complex than the average number of students per class, your suggestion for the administration is for more sections to be added for larger classes, which might actually not resolve the problem of a supposed decline in academic quality.

    The question here is: if you can’t explore the actual arguments for why Swarthmore academic quality is (supposedly) declining and propose practical steps to change it, why did you write this article in the first place? If your only concern is people being lotteried out of classes, maybe the title of this article should be different.

    And this one is for free: the fact that Swarthmore has an increased number of students attending classes in the natural sciences and engineering division is much more complex than people getting lotteried out of classes. Instead, we need to be asking what is happening with the “spirit of liberal arts” that people are choosing not to take classes in other departments. Maybe there is something wrong with us and our career-oriented interests and lack of love for learning for the sake of learning, not with the school. Or maybe the school’s move to a more career-oriented curriculum (with the implementation of the Lang Center’s Social Innovation Lab and the CIL) is indicative of changes in the way it understands its own purpose –which, even then, would indicate a shift in the schools ideology and not a decline in its academic quality.

  3. The statistics cited does not consider how many students are double majors. It is therefore really inflated and cannot be used for reference.

  4. As a former Phoenix copyeditor, I can’t help noticing you don’t have any copyeditors listed on your masthead. I’d suggest employing at least one or two if you can manage it. A good copyeditor can help your writing appear more professional and encourage readers to take your arguments (like those so tenuously supported in this article) more seriously.

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