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Friday, December 28, 2007

Weighing Expansion as More Top Students Clamor at Ivy Gates

By JOSEPH BERGER
New York Times
Published: December 26, 2007


In the mid-1960s, when William R. Fitzsimmons was a student at Harvard, the college took in a freshman class of roughly 1,550, including students at Radcliffe, which it would eventually absorb. In the four decades since, the population of the United States has ballooned by two-thirds, applications to Harvard have tripled and Mr. Fitzsimmons has ascended to the job of dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, but this year’s freshman class is only about 125 students larger than when he was a student.
That reluctance to grow has been true of many selective colleges that want to sustain their genteel scale. But with ever more students pressing at their gates, admissions officers find themselves having to reject what Anthony W. Marx, Amherst’s president, calls “astonishing applicants.”
The most elite institutions are accepting historic lows of 10 percent of applicants, and next year the sieve should become excruciatingly finer with applications from baby boomers’ offspring expected to crest. At least four of the nation’s most exclusive institutions — Princeton, Yale, Stanford and Amherst — are either modestly expanding enrollments for the first time since the late 1960s (when some began admitting women) or have task forces studying the matter.
For example, Princeton started gradually increasing its freshman classes in 2005, aiming to increase its undergraduate population by 500 students to an enrollment of 5,200 by the fall of 2012. And Stanford, with 6,759 undergraduates, not many more than the 6,571 it had 20 years ago, has appointed a task force to study expansion.
Meanwhile, gauntlets have effectively been thrown down to rival elite colleges by the presidents of Stanford and Yale in recent alumni-magazine articles. Stanford’s John Hennessy lamented that its undergraduate population had remained nearly level for 35 years and endorsed a modest expansion as a “practical and principled response to current realities.”
“I have been president for seven years,” Dr. Hennessy wrote in the September/October issue of Stanford Magazine, “and it is still one of the most difficult parts of the job to explain to parents with gifted children why a son or daughter was denied admission. And at the same time I must come to terms with the fact that we are denying Stanford the benefit of talent that could contribute to the University.”
The caveats in Dr. Hennessy’s thoughtful essay, though, underscored why selective colleges have never linked enrollments to demographic ups and downs. If elite colleges began wholesale expansions, their leaders suggest, the experience of attending them might start to resemble the jostling clamor of some public universities. “If you added 20 students, you probably wouldn’t notice; but if you added 200 students, it has a different feel,” said Jeff Wachtel, senior assistant to Dr. Hennessy.
For selective colleges, expansion is an existential question. Might they lose their sense of genial community and village-green scale? Might they have to replace seminars with more large lecture halls? Would they damage the quality of relationships among students and professors? “It doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose for us to dilute what we’re doing,” said Mr. Marx at Amherst, where the faculty has agreed to tweak the enrollment to 1,700, from 1,600.
The recent soul-searching is not just triggered by remorse. These colleges have been earnestly trying to open themselves to more kinds of students — from low income or black, Hispanic and Native American backgrounds, from foreign countries or remote states — yet have been trying to stay the same congenial size. As with a person who wants to eat rich foods while remaining the same trim weight, the zero-sum game has proved untenable.
Perhaps no motive is more gingerly discussed then the need to preserve so-called legacies.
Claire Van Ummersen, a vice president of the American Council on Education, pointed out that expanding enrollment would allow many colleges to continue to diversify but also let them keep admitting the same numbers of children of alumni, who contribute a large proportion of the colleges’ revenue and believe their families should retain that legacy advantage. Yale’s president, Rick Levin, alluded to some of this calculus in an interview in the March/April issue of Yale Alumni Magazine. “With a larger student body,” he said, “there would be more room to do more in all of these areas, but also to do more justice to the large number of students applying to Yale who are simply brilliant and well rounded.” He also noted that adding students would cultivate future alumni who might one day become generous donors. Expanding enrollments would be a farsighted investment.
At Yale, which has an enrollment of 5,275, two committees are expected to report in February about the impact of adding two residential colleges with a total of 600 students. Yale now has 12 such colleges where students study, eat, sleep and form many of their friendships.
Some universities face particular challenges to expansion. Harvard and Columbia have exhausted campus space, and expanding into surrounding neighborhoods has been a treacherous political odyssey.
Both colleges are planning satellite campuses in Allston and Harlem, respectively, for research and graduate facilities — with Columbia winning approval for its efforts just last week — but not pointedly for undergraduate classrooms.
A Harvard iconoclast might suggest building more capacious dorms to replace some of the 12 often-quaint residential houses among which students are parceled, each with its own library, dining room and tenured housemaster. But Mr. Fitzsimmons calls those houses Harvard’s crown jewels, suggesting they define the Harvard experience.
Enlarging a student body usually means expanding faculty, which means building office and research space. That costs money, and colleges point out that even the breathtaking tuition prices extra students would pay would not foot the bill. But Harvard and Princeton, with baronial endowments, have less to worry on that score.
One could tell families frustrated by being kept out of the top dozen colleges that they should try for colleges a notch down that might welcome them.
One could also tell the colleges that rarefied intimacy and genteel character may be unsustainable luxuries when so many deserving students are clamoring to get in.
Those are the debates the colleges will have for a good long time.

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