It’s a fact: admissions rates at top colleges across the U.S. have declined dramatically in recent years. Elite schools like Harvard and Stanford rejected nearly 95 percent of the applicant pool for the class of 2018. But it isn’t that these schools admit fewer students; rather, it’s that these schools receive more applications than they ever have before. A number of factors contribute to this: a fear of the arbitrary nature of college admissions, a greater amount of financial aid available for low-income students, and the ease of pressing “submit” on the common app are only a few. Whatever the reason, though, many high school students these days feel pressured to apply to ten, fifteen, sometimes even close to twenty colleges to ensure that they won’t be disappointed when those admissions emails arrive.
In light of the rising rate of rejections and the increasing number of extremely qualified applicants in an admissions pool, the inevitable question has arisen: should elite schools like Harvard increase class sizes in order to accommodate these changes? It’s a tantalizing prospect that simply involves increasing the number of beds available at the college so that more of these incredible students can be given the opportunity to study here. Unfortunately, though, this approach is far from practical and would only hurt the student body overall.
It’s important to remember that while Harvard is a massive research university as a whole, with top-tier graduate and professional schools included, the undergraduate portion—Harvard College—prides itself on being a smaller, liberal arts college. With nearly 7,000 undergraduates, Harvard College’s enrollment numbers are already on the upper end of the spectrum for a liberal arts college. To increase class size would be to forgo many of the important things a liberal arts education offers students, such as individualized attention from faculty and smaller course and section sizes. Smaller upperclassman seminars and tutorials, which are paramount to this style of learning, would likely be much more difficult to offer. Overall, students would be less able to engage in the interaction and discussion that plays such an instrumental role in a Harvard education.
Then, of course, there are the economic and logistical issues that would accompany an increase in class size. Funding in all areas would have to be spread thinner in order to accommodate a larger student body. Student groups, which would undoubtedly become larger, would require greater funding for activities and efforts that Harvard could not provide. And the revolutionary financial aid program that makes Harvard so unique would not be as effective, since the scholarship money available would have to be spread between a greater number of accepted students.
The issue here does not truly lie in the small number of students that elite colleges accept; rather, it lies in the culture of college admissions itself. These days, high school students and their parents place Ivy League institutions on such high pedestals, which only increases the pressure students feel to get accepted, and the sense of failure they experience if they aren’t. But the truth is that these outstanding students who are not accepted to elite colleges will instead populate other schools, thereby raising their standards. As a society, the only solution to this issue is to accept that Ivy League schools are not the only institutions that can provide brilliant students with an incredible and enlightening education. We must steer away from this obsession with big names and prestige, and instead convince applicants that there are many amazing options out there aside from the Ivies that will benefit from their presence.
With admissions these days as competitive as they are, this is, of course, a tall order, but removing this weight from the shoulders of high-achieving high schoolers is undoubtedly the most feasible solution. A change in class size is not the answer; a change in perspective is.