Dropped classes leave Whatcom students behind

Canceled classes due to low enrollment cause disruption in the lives of Whatcom Community College students and faculty.

When enrollment is low for classes that have been scheduled far in advance, substantial deliberation goes into deciding what steps to take going forward, explains Carla Gelwicks, Dean of Instruction at Whatcom. “We are trying to make all of our low enrollment decisions for cancellation the week before classes start so that students have time to find other classes.”

Empty classroom with stadium seating
A classroom normally used for film classes goes unused at Whatcom Community College. Photo by David Loudon.

One student was left scrambling to enroll in a new class after the collegiate choir was dropped a week before the quarter began. After enrolling for fall quarter classes months in advance to ensure his spot, Khaenin Rutherford expressed his frustration about the cancellation’s short notice.

“I did my due diligence [and] signed up for my classes far, far ahead of time. I was in Canada for a week before we went back to school. So, getting that email my last day kind of hindered my trip, having that in the back of my mind that I have to find a new class when I get home, already stressed about starting school again and work and all.”

Abrupt scheduling changes have an impact on students’ finances, explains Katherine Burns who teaches English at Whatcom as an adjunct instructor. “It’s not just your schedules [that are] messed up. It’s literal financial hardship. It can really throw a wrench in your motivation and momentum as a student. I have seen many times where students lose their groove.”

Last spring, Rutherford received two weeks’ notice when the same class was canceled. This time around with one week to look for a new class, he compromised “but I missed like my first couple of classes because I wasn’t able to get into it until they had already started.”

“I enrolled in the collegiate choir [class] here because I…wanted more experience to sing in a group and learn some of those rudimentary singing skills that I felt I could get from choir.” Rutherford continued. “This was my second quarter having it dropped, unfortunately.”

Carla Gelwicks gave insight into how administration determines which classes to offer on a yearly and quarterly basis and the different factors they consider. “Whatcom actually develops an annual schedule, and we do that because we know it’s important for student planning to have more than just one quarter in advance that they can base their life and school plans around.”

This schedule is devised by the instruction office consisting of deans and Whatcom’s Vice President for Instruction, Dr. Barry Robinson.

We work with department chairs and discipline leads who [then] work with department chairs, and, of course, the Advising office, which gives us good feedback around student demand and changes that have come up, which has been very important during the recent years. We use that to base all of our work for the year off of,” Gelwicks said.

In addition to the annual schedule, to account for unforeseen changes, the instruction office does quarterly updates to account for student needs. On Oct. 26, the winter schedule was updated and published in preparation for student registration. This is important, according to Gelwicks, to accommodate the modality demands of online versus in-person classes.

Student needs are taken into consideration during the class scheduling processes. For instance, VA advisors advocated for in-person math classes for veteran students, which resulted in alternate modality offerings to align them with student needs, Gelwicks explained. 

Empty classroom with stadium seating
An empty classroom at Whatcom Community College after low enrollment has resulted in certain classes being canceled. Photo by David Loudon.

Whatcom alum and veteran association (VA) advisor David Aguilar has observed major shifts at the college since his time as a student from 2012 to 2014. “It’s just amazing to see some changes and stuff like the new building, I just remember that it was a lot more populated.”

Veteran students rely on their classes for their specific degree programs and have more restrictions on the classes they can take. “In the context of a class being dropped, it is very disruptive, and it can put a student into a situation where they can only take two classes now. So, that’s going to impact monthly income” explains VA Advisor, Jarid Corbitt. 

“If you don’t meet a certain amount of credits, then you only qualify for [a certain amount of] VA income.” Aguilar states. Veteran students rely on that income to pay for common basic expenses such as books, food, and bills alike. 

When making major decisions such as class cancellations, modality changes, and scheduling, a shared governance process is used. 

“The ultimate decision does come out of the Instruction office, but it’s informed by all of the department chairs and the Instructional council. So, it is challenging sometimes because it is hard to predict right now what exactly the demand is for any given course,” said Gelwicks. “We have a process where we work together, start looking at low-enrolled classes early on, they’re on everybody’s radar so that we can pay attention.” 

Based on the course offerings, the Instruction office considers whether the course is required for degree completion, is a specialty course, or is required for certain transfer programs. “It’s not just one moment we watch. We have conversations throughout the quarter. As soon as registration starts, we’ll be doing that again for winter quarter.” 

Conductor and band on stage at collegiate concert.
Conductor and band on stage at the Whatcom Community College Fall Concert 2021. Photo courtesy of WCC Media Services.

The administration was not able to produce an easy answer as to why enrollment in the music department was low but in the case of the collegiate choir there simply were not enough students enrolled to justify the class as there were only four students registered on Sep. 12, leading to its cancellation.

“Music had quite a few classes that were very low-enrolled. That is one of the instances where we were trying to do some investigation to see what may have been contributing to that,” Gelwicks said. 

Students subject to class cancellations shortly before the quarter begins are tasked with finding a new class that fits their credit requirements and their preexisting schedule. In the case of the collegiate choir, consequential classroom experiences were lost in the wake of its cancellation.

Music discipline lead, Melanie Sehman spoke about her involvement in the music department as its only full-time faculty. She coordinates the classes and helps students interested in pursuing degrees in music transfer programs, while also teaching other classes within the department.

“Collegiate choir is always kind of on and off because we’re a community college and it’s an elective class,” Sehman states. “Usually the collegiate choir is a build-it-from-scratch every single quarter.”

Singers on stage dressed in black for collegiate concert.
Singers on stage at the Whatcom Community College Fall Concert 2021. Photo courtesy of WCC Media Services.

Building a class from scratch every quarter is difficult for instructors, “not knowing if you’re gonna have a class this quarter or next quarter, or the one after that.” Sehman explains. The music department has approximately five adjunct instructors who teach academic classes within the discipline. However, if classes are unable to fulfill the minimum enrollment requirement, then the class could be dropped. This applies hardships to instructors and students.

Typically in the collegiate choir, the class works on a Performance Ensemble to stage a live concert at the end of the quarter. In the fall quarter of 2021, music students throughout the department were able to successfully perform by livestreaming their concert, making the performance more accessible.  The music department has been able to continually showcase Whatcom students’ talents and adapt to the changing classroom environment.

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