Filled to the Brim

November 16, 2005

Officials at some of the nation’s largest campuses say they’re glad to be popular, but not looking to grow. In fact, they said, like an elephant hiding behind a pole, a large campus has to find ways to seem a bit smaller, especially for incoming freshmen. 

Martha Garland, Ohio State University’s provost and dean of undergraduate students, recently found out that the university’s main campus in Columbus had slipped from first to third on the size chart – behind Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, and the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus -- with a measly 50,504 students. 

It doesn’t bother her one bit. “It’s very American to want to be biggest,” Garland says. “But it doesn’t have any essential merit.” She adds that university staff members expend “quite a bit of energy for first years trying to make it feel small.” 

Mabel Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions and first-year experience at Ohio State, says it basically comes down to knowing your capacity. “I’ve talked with friends at [the Universities of] Texas and Minnesota,” Freeman says. “None of us have the goal of getting bigger.” 

For example, a letter from the president on the University of Texas at Austin’s Web site, proclaims that, though there are about 50,000 students on the campus, “Texas is not about size or volume or brashness. It is about freedom. It is about ambition.”

Freeman said that, years ago, she never would have announced that the “we are large, diverse and urban,” she says, for fear of scaring off students. “Now we’re being honest about who we are, and [Ohio State isn’t] right for everyone.” But to make it work for students who do decide to enroll, Freeman says that Ohio State goes out of its way to help freshmen immediately get a foothold in what can be a daunting place. 

Many freshmen live in one of about 40 “living and learning communities,” where they are housed with others who have expressed an interest in things like international affairs or nursing. Or, she says, they can even be placed specifically with other students who aren’t yet sure what they’re interested in. 

Choosing from Ohio State’s 180 undergraduate majors and 12,000 courses can be a little like playing darts blindfolded if students are left to their own devices. To ensure that freshmen don’t end up going from Classical Mythology to Intro to Theater -- both lectures of several hundred -- Ohio State offers freshman seminars that are capped at 18 students, and range from “Hitchhikers’ Guide to Library Research,” to the tort law class “Big Macs, Big Tobacco, and Big SUVs.”

Says Freeman: “Whether it’s with another student or faculty member, we want them to make a personal connection in the first six weeks, or they might be at risk of leaving.” Garland notes that one of the nice things about being big is that the campus can draw big name performers, like, recently, Usher, and Paul McCartney. 

Joe Glover, associate provost at the University of Florida, says the Gainesville campus has about 45,000 students, and that’s about the capacity. “Gainesville is a pretty small city,” Glover says. “I don’t think anybody contemplated the campus getting this big when it was placed here.” Glover says that the campus can’t really expand much more without taxing the city’s infrastructure. 

He says that having so many different programs on campus fosters interdisciplinary work, and that, while enrollment is not growing, the number of applications is, so the university can be more selective. Glover adds that, because state tuition has been kept so low, “we may not have the revenue to offer support services,” like extra tutoring, “that some places do.” 

One of the major problems 10 years ago, Glover says, was that students were having trouble graduating in four years because they would get locked out of required courses. Now the university monitors class enrollment every week and guarantees students who are making satisfactory progress toward a degree that they will have a seat in required courses. The monitoring system has allowed the university to handle fluctuations, like when, several years ago, the percentage of students enrolled in freshman chemistry jumped 30 points in one year, “for reasons we still can’t explain,” Glover said. 

Penn State University, which has 40,709 students on its University Park campus, has capped that site at 42,000. “We’ve seen growth since we came into existence,” says Tysen Kendig, a university spokesman. “We think we’ve reached a critical mass.” As at all of these institutions, Kendig notes that large lectures are accompanied by smaller recitation sections. 

Eric White, executive director of Penn State’s Division of Undergraduate Studies, says that students can feel the energy of a campus that, for example, can pack 25,000 into the student section at a football game. But he says that Penn State has to “balance largeness with up close and personal.” Small freshmen seminars, and a constant push, starting in the summer before freshman year, to get students in touch with advisers have helped students find their niche right away, he says. 

At Arizona State University, plans are in place for growth, but officials said that the Tempe campus, the nation’s new heavyweight champion, with 51,612 students, is about full. 

In a state that is growing rapidly but has few four-year institutions, Arizona State is opening a new campus to accommodate the new people. “Growth isn’t a goal,” says Jim Rund, Arizona State’s vice president of university initiatives, “it’s an outcome of being in this state.” Rund says that there are mini-communities on campus to make sure students don’t have to try to swallow Tempe whole. Many freshmen can eat, go to class, and meet with their adviser in the same building they sleep and play video games in. Some freshmen become part of groups of 20 that are scheduled to take several courses together so they can quickly begin to recognize some friendly faces. 

Though none of the titanic campuses are running around bragging about their bulk, administrators at each agree that there are benefits to having a campus that would dwarf many American cities. “We have close to 100 study abroad programs, and an incredible network,” Freeman says. “We can put students on any continent, including Antarctica.” And in case students are worried about getting stuck in all large lectures, Freeman adds that she can “guarantee if you take the class at 8 a.m. you’ll be in a small section.”

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