Photo by Maria Cordova
Illustration by Manne Green

The stress-inducing scramble to get into classes to receive a degree in four years is the bitter reality for many UC students at the start of each quarter.

The culprits are impacted classes and majors. A major becomes “impacted” if the number of students applying for a specific major exceeds the number of students allowed to enroll in that major. Class enrollment in these majors becomes more competitive and causes students to fight for class spots and endure more academic hardships.

“Usually in the beginning of the quarter, some lecture halls are overcrowded, namely my fall quarter class,” said first-year student and computer engineering major Gian Bisma. “My professor even encouraged freshmen and sophomores with little to no programming knowledge to drop the class and make space for upperclassmen who need to graduate.”

Impacted classes affect students in majors that range from engineering to art. Many departments have to make alterations to their courses to accommodate for the high demand of students.

The psychology department is forced to sacrifice the quality of students’ learning for increased enrollment due to impacted classes.

“I am not able to deliver senior seminars as effectively as I would like because they are double the size of what an effective seminar is supposed to be,” said psychology professor Phillip Hammack. “In reality, we have to over-enroll students, […] which is pretty common in psychology because otherwise they will not graduate.”

Lecture overcrowding is a common result of impacted classes in popular majors like psychology. Hammack adds that some large lecture courses in the department have seen increases in student enrollment from 120 students to 180.

Hammack said the inadequate number of faculty is to blame for the department failing to meet the demands of its students.

“UC Riverside — the comparable UC to us in terms of the psychology department — has 39 faculty, while we currently have 25,” Hammack said. “A major expansion of faculty would enhance the experience of students considerably and hopefully address issues of overcrowding in classrooms.”

The Baskin School of Engineering faces the same dilemma.

Computer science and engineering (CSE) professor Rebecca Rashkin said overcrowded classes are detrimental because students have difficulty making friends, forming study groups and making advantageous peer connections, all of which are vital to student learning. She said it’s harder to connect with students and encourage them to ask questions in larger classes.

“The administrative load of having an impacted class is significantly larger, despite having more teaching assistants,” Rashkin said. “We need more teachers. We could do this by trying to recruit more lecturers and graduate student instructors.”

Students in the CSE department feel the pressure that comes with impacted classes. With the department revamping its curriculum, the confusion about which new prerequisites CSE students must take can delay their graduation.

“There may be some critical classes that I have to take that I may not get into, so I may have to take another quarter at UCSC,” said first-year student and computer science major Ryan Anderson. “It’s like a contest to get into classes.”

Students who are forced to take a fifth year must pay for extra housing, tuition and other university fees. An extra year would cost about $35,000 for in-state students and close to $64,000 for out-of-state students.

The competition and pressure involved with impacted classes can overwhelm students and lead them to struggle with mental health issues. 

Out of about 3,000 students who came to UCSC’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office last year, 45 percent of students indicated academic concerns. CAPS, whose purpose is to address the mental health needs of the university’s students, must also work with students who are affected by the pressure of impacted classes.

“We need to do a better job universitywide of developing back-up plans for students who struggle with their academic goals,” said CAPS director Gary Dunn. “CAPS is sitting down with faculty and people involved with academic decisions to talk about the impact of impacted majors, impacted classes and the quarter system, and see how our students are impacted.”

Dunn encourages stressed and overwhelmed students to pay attention to their basic needs of self-care — getting enough sleep, eating well and finding balance between a social and academic life.

Professor Phillip Hammack said change must come to departments with impacted classes so students can achieve their college goals and not feel pressured to take competitive classes. 

“At the undergraduate level, my personal belief is you should pursue your passion so you can figure out where you want to go in life,” Hammack said. “When you’re just taking a class because there’s a seat in it, that reduces and interferes with our mission of what it is we’re trying to achieve as educators.”