When Shahla Doroud arrived at the University of Illinois in August, she and her classmates faced an unusual problem.
They didn’t have a classroom.
"We weren’t quite sure where the first-years were supposed to be," recalled Doroud. "Construction was ongoing."
It's now finals week, and the chaos has calmed. Doroud and her peers gather in the basic sciences building’s largest room, a space newly retrofitted and expanded to accommodate 160 students — the largest class in the program’s 72-year history
The surge in first-year students, admissions officials say, was unexpected. The program, which typically seats around 130 students each year, offers admission to nearly twice that number on the expectation that many will elect to study elsewhere.
It’s a dance that admissions offices across the country do each spring when aiming to seat their classes, explained Dr. Jonathan Foreman, associate dean for academic and student affairs.
"All admissions departments everywhere make more offers than they have seats because they know they won’t get all the responses," he stated. "They get an offer off a wait list from their own state school. It's very common to see the acceptance rate in the out-of-state school not be real high."
This year, though, out-of-state students such as Doround, a resident of California, chose UI in unprecedented numbers. Normally, one out of four out-of-state applicants accepted by the program typically takes up the offer, Foreman said. "Our 10-year average for acceptances in the out-of-state pool is about 25 percent," he stated. "It’s been an ongoing trend with very little variance."
Until now. "This year," Foreman said, "it was 60 percent."
University officials aren’t certain what’s driving the program’s popularity. Foreman said it was "definitely a surprise" that's happened at a challenging time.
The veterinary college, he said, was in the midst of a state-allocated $2.1 million capital improvements plan when construction halted in June 2015 due to budget gridlock in the state capital that froze the project's funds.
Lawmakers ended the historic budget crisis in August by passing a temporary budget that's set to expire in January.
That stopgap measure, however, initially failed to free up disbursements from the government to state-supported universities throughout Illinois, including UI. Upon learning that the incoming veterinary class would be uniquely large, UI officials elected to partially restart capital improvements by funding the veterinary college's classroom renovations. The veterinary college paid to renovate an anatomy laboratory.
Dr. Peter Constable, the veterinary college's dean, declined to put a price on the lab renovation but confirmed that the project was undertaken to ensure that the large incoming class had adequate accommodations.
Full funding for the renovation projects has since been restored, and Constable noted that the university and veterinary college will be refunded for their expenses. Also moving forward are planned improvements to the veterinary college's small- and large-animal teaching hopsitals, he said.
The university's funding woes, however, haven't ended. Given the ongoing uncertainty of state budget, the college’s faculty and staff haven’t had a pay increase since 2014.
"We can seat enough people to be able to accommodate the increase in class size. For now, that’s what matters," Foreman stated.
While details of the budget crisis are unique to Illinois, over-enrollment is common within higher education, said Lisa Greenhill, assistant director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. The process of seating a class varies, but there are basic similarities among the nation’s 30 veterinary medical programs. The average applicant applies to four colleges, she said, and can be accepted by more than one program.
"Each school will have their own algorithm for how they get the numbers of offers that need to be made, in order to get the appropriate yield to seat their class," she said. "They know if they have a class of 100, they probably need to send out close to 200 letters of admission."
That leads to over-enrollment.
"Frankly, it happens to some degree to some institution every year," Greenhill said. "But certainly I’ve not seen a scenario that’s as big as what’s happened at Illinois.
"It’s a good problem, but it’s still a problem," she added.
So far, Doroud, the first-year student from California, said she hasn’t felt cramped in the program. She got used to larger class sizes at the University of California, Davis, where she completed her undergraduate degree. She chose to study veterinary medicine at UI because the curriculum provides her with clinical experience during her first and second years, much earlier than at some other programs.
"The professors here have honestly been super-great about giving everyone attention," she said. "If they hadn't told us that we were the biggest class size, I wouldn't have noticed anything different."
Foreman is glad to hear it.
"That’s a great problem to have, that we have a lot of people who want to come to school here," he said. "We just had to figure out how to make that happen."