Class Size To Hold Steady

Amid calls for highly selective universities to increase enrollment in order to ease pressure on high school seniors, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said yesterday that Harvard College and its peers are unlikely to boost the number of students they admit.

After Sandy Baum, a professor emeritus at Skidmore College, and Michael S. McPherson, a former president of Macalester College, argued at a conference in January that enrollment numbers should be increased, a debate arose in online forums and among education professionals about whether elite institutions of higher learning should increase the number of students they admit. Upping the number of spots for freshmen would reduce the stresses on applicants and improve the quality of applicants’ high school educations, Baum and McPherson said.

“We think it’s great that we have such highly selective institutions, but it’s clear that there are more qualified students than they can enroll,” Baum said. “As acceptance rates go down, things just get more and more frantic.”

McPherson—the current president of the Spencer Foundation, which funds research in education—said that applicants to elite colleges feel obligated to participate in activities just for the purpose of including them on an application.

“Students feel a lot of pressure in high school to take every AP course that’s offered. They feel a lot of pressure to never take a course where they risk getting less than an A,” he said. “Those are educationally undesirable things.”

While Fitzsimmons acknowledged that plummeting admissions rates have created a high level of stress and anxiety for applicants, he said that increasing enrollment is not something that the College can consider seriously. According to Fitzsimmons, the College has already increased the size of the freshman class to maximum capacity over the past ten years.

“We would love to be able to admit more people, but there’s no place to put them. There are constraints,” said Fitzsimmons, who noted that the construction of new dormitories would be prohibitively expensive and that an increased class size would lead to a dilution of resources available to students.

McPherson said that while funding an expansion is an issue, it is something the College could have done if it had chosen to do so.

“Think about the many ways the undergraduate experience was enriched in the [past ten years],” McPherson said. “What if instead of spending more on students you have, you use some of those additional revenues to expand enrollment?”

But Fitzsimmons said he believes that the benefits of a larger applicant pool outweigh its downsides.

“In many respects, places like [Harvard] have been democratized. You really have an applicant pool that is much more representative of the world,” Fitzsimmons said.

Bridget T. Long, professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that while the public would benefit from increased enrollment, such an increase probably would not make a substantial difference in the larger scheme of things.

“Will that be much of a drop in the bucket? Probably not,” she said. “Highly selective schools are really only catering to 5 percent of students.”

—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at jworland@college.harvard.edu.

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