Size Matters

From Amherst to Pomona, liberal arts colleges are increasing enrollments -- and trying to keep a small college environment.
February 24, 2006

When Richard Vos thinks about how many students Claremont McKenna College should have, he looks at the campus dining hall. The southern California institution has only one and he wants to keep it that way.

"It's absolutely critical when it comes to community building that students eat in the same place two or three times a day," says Vos, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid. But that doesn't mean that there's not a little more room around the tables. So Claremont McKenna just decided to increase its enrollment from 1,040 to 1,110 students.

At plenty of big universities,  where 1,100 students might be enrolled in a single course, adding 70 students would be a rounding error. But at liberal arts colleges, increases of 7 percent can be a big deal -- setting off debates over mission, identity, and the quality of education. Increasingly, top liberal arts colleges are having those debates and increasing in size.

Pomona College, a Claremont McKenna neighbor, is planning to increase enrollment -- currently 1,500 -- by 10 percent. Amherst College has just unveiled a plan to increase the size of each entering class, currently 410-425 students, by another 15-25 students. Bryn Mawr College (total enrollment just over 1,200) is currently conducting a feasibility study about its enrollment size. Grinnell College last year decided to grow on-campus enrollments by about 150 students, to 1,500. And these moves -- all of which involve creating faculty slots as well -- follow shifts involving even larger numbers of students at places like Middlebury and Gettysburg Colleges.

Other colleges have resisted the trend. The president of Haverford College set off an intense discussion on the campus last year with his suggestion that the institution consider expansion. Plans circulated to add several hundred students. With many students and professors opposed to the idea, Haverford is staying put at 1,150.

"It is unquestionably the trend to increase," says Richard H. Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. The enrollment increases can create economies of scale, broaden diversity of students and programs, and make institutions more competitive, he says.

But even if the trend is clear, it is hard to know how much colleges can grow without a loss of identity. "The debate is how far you can go without losing a sense of a small community," he says.

The primary motivations for increasing in size vary from campus to campus. At Amherst, the increase is part of a broader proposal about academic priorities. Key enrollment goals identified in the report were increasing the number of low-income students and the number of international students, for whom Amherst would for the first time be pledging to meet full financial need.

Anthony W. Marx, president of Amherst, says that there won't be any financial gain for the college from having more students because the additional slots are specifically for those groups of students, who will end up getting full scholarships. But admissions slots at a place like Amherst are quite valuable, too, and Marx says that by growing modestly, the college can diversify without creating "a sense that it's a zero sum game."

"Obviously there are concerns about constituencies, whether they are minority students or legacy students or scientists or athletes or artists," Marx says. "If it was possible for us to do what we need to do for education and society without anyone feeling that it came as a cost to them, why wouldn't we do it that way?"

David Oxtoby, president at Pomona, says he worries about the impact of rejecting so many students who could succeed and add to the community at his college. And he worries that the high rejection rates -- something many colleges have worked to attain because they help them with U.S. News and other rankings -- are having a negative impact, especially with minority students and those from low-income backgrounds.

"We work so hard to go out there and make more and more students aware of our college and the aid we provide," he says. "It's really counterproductive to go out there and say you can apply and then just reject them."

In campus discussions, Oxtoby has repeatedly talked about the moral responsibility of a college to educate students who can gain from it -- rather than just enjoying the prestige that comes with being seen as elite.

Middlebury, which grew from 2,000 to 2,350 students during the late '90s, offers evidence that growth can have a major impact on diversity. Minority enrollments grew from 10 to 22 percent and international enrollments from 8 to 10 percent. Mike Schoenfeld, a Middlebury vice president who was dean of enrollment planning during the college's growth spurt, says that the diversified student body was seen as an educational goal -- and one that the college didn't want to accomplish "at the expense of our base."

Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford, says that even if minority percentages are strong, a small college can be at a disadvantage in recruiting minority applicants and many other groups. "When you look at numbers, they can represent a very small number of people," he says, not only for ethnic and racial groups, but for states, regions or academic majors. A college of 1,150 will always be admitting enough students to keep enrollments robust in economics or biology or history, he says, but majors can be scarce in other programs.

While Amherst and Pomona don't lack for applicants, there is also the reality that many students want colleges that are slightly larger than many liberal arts colleges have been -- at least historically. "There are many studies showing that there is real sensitivity to students about small size, and an increase in size can attract many more students," says Peter Bryant, vice president for Noel-Levitz, a consulting service on enrollment strategies for colleges.

Bryant also notes that there are "clear economies of scale" so that "costs are being spread around a larger student population." Bryant and others note that with students expecting nicer activities centers, wireless Internet access and so forth, many costs don't vary significantly for 1,000 students or 1,400.

Those economies of scale produce the funds to add the programs that can attract more students. And as more students pay for more programs, there can be still more funds available.

Gettysburg College just finished an eight-year plan to increase enrollment by 600 students, to 2,600. As enrollments have grown, the college has added programs in Asian studies, Latin American studies, African-American studies, film studies, and environmental studies, and the number of student organizations has doubled.

"You can still be a small school, but there's a lot more 'there' there," says Katherine Haley Will, the president. Because the additional programs and offerings made the college more attractive to students, Gettysburg was able to see its admission rate of applicants fall from 72 percent to 41 percent during the time it was increasing enrollment.

Interdisciplinary programs, such as those added at Gettysburg, can indeed be hard to start or grow at institutions with relatively small faculties. Adding slots in those areas is one goal of Grinnell's growth plan, and something Pomona is talking about as well.

Similar motivations are also evident at some institutions that aren't liberal arts colleges, but that are also growing. Rice University is a research institution, but is very small for that sector. It is planning to increase undergraduate enrollment to 3,800 -- up 30 percent -- over the next few years.

"For us the question was not to be large, but where between tiny and small to be among research universities," says David Leebron, the president. He mentioned top reasons for growth as the desire to add international enrollments and to add or improve selected academic programs, among them Asian studies, Latin American studies, and bioengineering.

Leebron also thinks that more students are looking for larger institutions. "In talking to guidance counselors outside Texas, we were told that Rice would be more attractive if a bit larger," he says. "Students want an exciting and dynamic atmosphere."

Elsewhere in Texas, Southwestern University is taking a different approach on enrollment. The university is carrying out a plan to increase the diversity of its student body (seeking more minority and out-of-state students), while trying to keep enrollment steady at 1,250. In addition, the university is on a hiring campaign to replace some adjunct and visiting positions with full-time tenure-track faculty members.

Jake B. Schrum, president at Southwestern, says that with Texas higher education dominated by two mammoth public universities, his institution is better off defining itself by small size and close student-faculty interaction. Southwestern will never compete with a University of Texas in breadth, so it is better off "working with our numbers," he says.

"We're not about enrolling thousands and thousands of students," he says. "What we're about is a transformational educational experience, and we think we have a better chance of providing that, and do provide it, because of our intimate scholarly community."

Such a commitment had trade-offs. Thomas R. Tritton, Haverford's president, says that comparisons to other institutions can be made either way. On the one hand, he says, "human knowledge is expanding and we're not -- and that presents a challenge." But Tritton notes that universities where the size of the English faculty may well exceed Haverford's professoriate still agonize over what courses to teach and how to cover new areas of scholarship.

"I think what we realized talking about these issues here is that size should not be the question -- size should be the answer to the question. The debate should never be about what size you are, but what you want to accomplish," he says.

At Haverford, many students and professors came forward to say that for what they wanted to accomplish, it was important not to grow.

Andrew Yeats, a junior who is majoring in both physics and political science, was among the leaders of those who opposed expansion. Asked why he was so against the idea, he says simply: "The main reason is that I love Haverford."

He cites the closeness of students and faculty members, the honor code that has special meaning when everyone truly knows everyone, the environment where students leave their book bags anywhere on campus and don't worry about theft, the fact that he sits on a committee that, with professors and administrators, plans the college's budget, and the fact that Haverford is the kind of institutions where -- when the president set aside the growth idea -- he did so responding to campus reaction.

"This is a community where your first instinct is not to look out for yourself, but to think about others. That's something that's lacking in American society, and it's something we have here," Yeats says.

At a time that many colleges are governed "in a top down way," the values of collegiality are strengthened by small size, he adds. "If we were to lose the quality of being small, I think we'd lose more than just being small," he says.

Current students tend to be those most skeptical of growth plans, which isn't surprising, given that they were attracted to a campus with however many students are there now. At Pomona, student reaction has been mixed, and the issue hasn't captured as much attention as has been the case at Haverford.

But Lori DesRochers, president of the student government, says that some are worried. "I think some people think about the moral issues of turning away students who could do well here," she says. Others worry about change.

DesRochers says she believes administrators there are planning to minimize any negative impact of change, but she's concerned. "I like the size of Pomona right now," she says.

Oxtoby, the president there, says he understands the fears about expansion, but thinks that the college will preserve its identity. He says that while students think of the college as small, it's already larger than the truly small institutions. For colleges with enrollments of up to 1,000, he says, it truly is possible for everyone to be in on everything -- the faculty as a whole can decide policy, without committees, for example. Once you cross over that size, Oxtoby says, the reality is that you do have committees and structures and going up by 100 doesn't change the fundamental character.

George Dehne, who leads a company that advises many colleges on enrollment issues, agrees. He says that there is some irony in the criticism faced by colleges that discuss plans to increase enrollment when other institutions just let the numbers creep up a bit each year. "A lot of this depends how intellectually honest an institution is," he says.

Dehne says that the qualities that fans of small colleges like to cite are indeed very important. But he says that they overstate the impact of numbers alone. There are colleges of 5,000 that he says are more oriented toward teaching and students than are some colleges of 2,000. And that's because presidents and deans and professors and student affairs professionals have either been hired with certain student oriented values in mind or they haven't.

"There is no magic size, it's about ethos," Dehne says. "It's ultimately about attitude and not numbers -- it's about what the school values."


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