Pratt School Prepared for Enrollment Jump

By Geoffrey Mock

Durham, N.C. -- Pratt School of Engineering officials had three years to prepare for a trustee-approved enrollment increase of 50 undergraduates per incoming class. This summer, however, they had scarcely one month to prepare for an unplanned enrollment increase of nearly another 50 students.

The unexpected rise in enrollment came from a higher-than-normal yield of admitted students. That increase, combined with the planned enrollment hike, means that some 360 students are expected to start classes Aug. 29, nearly 100 more students than last year’s entering class at Pratt.

For Pratt officials, it’s a good problem to have, but one that will pose challenges -- particularly in two or three years. Tod Laursen, senior associate dean for education, said school officials were pleasantly surprised that the yield rate jumped from about 35 percent to nearly 40 percent, which is similar to the rate for TrinityCollege.

There are several reasons for the increase, but students single out the new Fitzpatrick CIEMAS building and its impressive labs for first-year students. In a speech to undergraduates last March, President Richard H. Brodhead promised that new construction at Duke would not just provide additional space but new educational opportunities for students. Laursen said the FitzpatrickCenter is making good on that promise.

“These labs really allow us to take first-year student hands-on learning to a new level,” Laursen said. “When we brought students in during Blue Devil Days and other events for admitted students, we took them to these labs and showed them what they would be doing. They got excited.”

The best news for Pratt is that the additional students came from the top of the school’s wish list, Laursen said.

“You might think that the largest gains in the yield would come from students who were in the middle or bottom end of our admitted list, but the biggest jump in fact occurred in the top students,” Laursen said. “These are students who weren’t even applying to Duke a decade ago. Five years ago, they were applying to Duke but going elsewhere. Now not only are they applying to Duke, but more of them are coming.”

The larger enrollment has kept Pratt officials busy this summer. Laursen said most of the work had been done over the past three years in preparation for the planned increase.

However, as the enrollment continued to rise, Laursen said school officials moved to create additional sections and hire additional teaching assistants.

The biggest concerns were required first-year introductory courses in engineering as well as freshmen design studio courses. Some TrinityCollege courses, particularly Writing 20 and introductory physics classes, also will be affected.

Laursen said everything seems to be in place for the start of this school year, but the work isn’t over. In fact, more issues may appear two or three years down the road when the Pratt Class of 2009 begins junior- and senior-year seminars and capstone courses.

“The junior and senior year in engineering involves a significant amount of hands-on learning, which are expensive and labor-intensive,” Laursen said. “We have to ensure that after giving them this great introductory learning experience, we’ll have the sections, the teachers and the facilities to continue that through the students’ education here.”

The enrollment jump also underscores ongoing concerns about the size of the biomedical engineering (BME) department, the PrattSchool’s flagship unit. Laursen said early indications are that a large number of the new students are interested in BME courses, although the school doesn’t require selection of a major until sophomore year.

“Over the long term, the solution is for us to bring the other departments closer to biomedical engineering’s national reputation,” Laursen said. “And that’s our plan. But the immediate issue is that we may see some strain on BME classes and labs.”

Officials are looking at expanding and renovating labs and undergraduate biomedical facilities in Hudson Hall and TeerBuilding. Many of these renovations were begun this summer, and are targeted specifically to support upper-level courses.

The bottom line is the increased enrollment should fulfill the school’s aim for increasing its national reputation. This year, the school’s undergraduate program finished in a tie for 22nd in the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

“We want to have an impact on the field, and we’re competing against schools that are a lot larger than us,” Laursen said. “It’s just tough to have a major impact when you are graduating 200-210 undergraduates a year.

“In addition, we’re in an era of declining engineering enrollment. Nationally, there’s a lot of concern that we’re not producing the expertise needed for future technical advances in this country. With the growth of the quality of our programs, we saw an opportunity to make a statement and buck that trend and to do so with a very strong student base. We’re going to have some challenges, but it’s a nice problem to have.”