At a time when prospective students are often closely considering class size while applying to college, Harvard's admissions prospectus may be sending mixed messages.
A chart in the prospectus-commonly known as the "Rollo"-boasts that only one class "in a typical fall term" has more than 500 students. The chart also states that 539 courses have 20 or fewer students enrolled.
But the chart's figures have not changed in recent memory, and the numbers currently listed in the Rollo don't correlate with statistics from the registrar's office.
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 agreed that the class-size chart "looks a little old to me" and "may not be updated year to year." Fitzsimmons said this year's figures should reflect enrollment numbers from the fall of 1996, when the book was produced.
But according to the registrar's office, last fall there were actually three courses-not one-with more than 500 enrolled.
Those courses were: Social Analysis 10: "Principles of Economics;" Moral Reasoning 22: "Justice;" and Literature and Arts A-40: "Shakespeare, the Early Plays."
And an informal review of enrollment figures and old Rollos shows that the discrepancy has persisted for at least several years.
Fitzsimmons insists that there was "no intention to deceive."
And Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis '70 and Fitzsimmons both said that the entire Rollo cannot be reviewed each year.
"We make what I call editorial changes, updating the facts, every year," said Lewis, adding that there are "varying degrees of change."
Although the real enrollments over the past three years often average out to the numbers listed in the Rollo, the chart has been somewhat inaccurate in recent years.
Last year, Harvard fell from its coveted top stop to No.3 in U.S. News and World Report's annual college ranking, partly because the magazine factored in class sizes in its formula for ranking schools.
According to the U.S. News' figures from 1996, 21 percent of Harvard's classes contain more than 50 students, compared with 9 and 13 at Yale and Princeton, respectively.
Although critics of the U.S. News rankings abound, the sudden change caught the attention of administrators and may be of concern to prospective students as well.
Fitzsimmons said the registrar's office has "worked very hard" this past year to ensure the accurate reporting of the exact number of students enrolled in every class.
Departmental Administrator Greg Atkinson, the "numbers man" at the registrar's office, said that "we're always very careful" reporting class-size statistics.
Atkinson offered variations in the way the data is processed as a cause for the discrepancy between the Rollo's figures and the real ones.
"It depends what people are looking for," he said, citing the economics survey as an example. The registrar's office does not count Social Analysis 10 as one class enrolling 920 students because it meets mostly in section, although the course's lectures pack Sanders Theatre.
When asked how the registrar's office defines "mostly," he said that "there's not a formula" and that each case is usually evaluated by "historical precedent."