In April 2000, faced with a record 18,691 applicants, Harvard accepted just under 11 percent—a historic low for Harvard College admissions.
“The academic strength of the pool is extraordinary,” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said at the time. “The pools have been getting larger and the quality of the pool has been getting better.”
In the 16 years since, although the number of applicants to the College has more than doubled, the size of Harvard’s undergraduate population has remained relatively constant. This year, the College admitted 2,037 students to the Class of 2020; in comparison, 2,035 students were admitted to the Class of 2004.
As a result, the College admitted a record-low 5.2 percent of an unprecedented pool of over 39,000 applicants this year.
While the size of Harvard’s undergraduate student body has remained about the same for decades, several of the College’s peers—namely Stanford, Yale, and Princeton—plan to enlarge their undergraduate populations and construct new residential dorms to accommodate additional students. As Harvard undergoes its own physical expansion with the scheduled opening of a new engineering campus in Allston, some administrators are weighing in on whether Harvard should likewise expand the size of its undergraduate population—a question first raised more than 10 years ago.
Harvard, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith wrote in an emailed statement, “is not actively pursuing expansion of the undergraduate student body at this time. Our focus today, in the capital budget of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is on completing the important process of renewing our existing undergraduate Houses in Cambridge and on the development of the new home for the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences along Western Avenue.”
The University has thought of expanding, though, if not definitively.
“Not just because our peers are doing it, honestly, but because we do have lots of talented students that can come and be part of our Harvard community,” Smith said in an interview earlier this month.
In 2003, then University-President Lawrence H. Summers indicated that plans for the new Allston campus included possibly constructing additional undergraduate housing on the other side of the Charles River.
Summers said in 2003 he would consider eliminating the three Houses in the Radcliffe Quad, to be replaced by new Houses south of the River. The Quad Houses would then be repurposed for graduate students, many of whom were “paying quite a bit on the open market for housing,” according to William C. Kirby, a Chinese history professor who was dean of FAS in the early 2000s. Summers also expressed interest in the construction of an additional, 13th residential House to accommodate an expanded undergraduate population.
A year after Summers’s initial proposal, an undergraduate life task force published a report that strongly endorsed the plan, suggesting that having a “critical mass” of undergraduates living in Allston would be valuable for the campus.
Despite such discussion, Kirby emphasized in an interview earlier this month that expansion was not the University’s top priority at the time.
“It was something we would look at, but only after we increased the size of the faculty, reviewed the state of undergraduate education, [and] reviewed the state of Allston plans,” Kirby said.
“Simply getting bigger, in our view, wasn’t necessarily the first goal—getting better was the first goal,” Kirby added.
However, in response to the financial crisis, the University decided in December 2009 to halt Allston construction—and with it, the plans for further expansion.
Even as the University resumed development of its Allston campus with new construction plans three years later, definitive action has yet to be taken on a growth of the undergraduate population.
In 2003, Summers expressed interest in accepting more international students to the College without decreasing the number of students accepted from the United States, a plan that would expand the undergraduate population.
But for years now, the size of Harvard’s student body has remained relatively constant at about 6,700, even as a growing number of prospective undergraduates apply to the College each year. This year, a record 39,044 students applied to the Class of 2020, more than a threefold increase from the 12,188 that applied to the Class of 1994.
As a result, the College’s acceptance rate has been declining steadily—dropping from 18 percent for the Class of 1994 to just over 5 percent for the Class of 2020.
“We have no shortage of very qualified people applying to the College whom we can’t admit, so there’s enormous pressure on admissions,” Kirby said.
In response to the declining acceptance rate, Smith, the current FAS dean, said Harvard administrators have considered expanding the student body.
Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70-’73 wrote in an email that she believed “there is some hope to enlarge” the undergraduate body, but that other priorities—such as financial aid—may take precedence.
Fitzsimmons said that, should the College choose to expand, it should not do so at the expense of “the quality of the undergraduate experience.”
“I think in the future, if we were to expand, the first thing we’re going to have make sure of is providing that personal experience that we are providing now,” Fitzsimmons said.
Anna Ivey, founder of the admissions consulting firm Ivey Consulting, also said an increase in the number of applicants is not itself a reason to accept more students.
“When you see the number of applicants go up, it’s not necessarily the case that all those extra applicants are qualified, or even remotely qualified,” she said. “Some of them are, some of them aren’t.”
Still, Smith said the impending opening of the Allston campus, expected in 2020, means that space could be available for the construction of new residence halls to accommodate more students in the future.
“Allston is obviously a potential place to put another House—or two,” Smith said. “Since 98 percent of students live in our residential system, in order to expand the undergraduate College, we would have to have a place for them to stay in the House system.”
Any construction of new residential Houses would not begin until after the end of Harvard’s more than $1 billion House renewal project, Smith said in an interview, later emphasizing in a statement that “Harvard is not actively pursuing expansion of the undergraduate student body at this time.”
Recommendations from FAS presented in a 2007 report for then-Dean of the College David Pilbeam and Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 suggested that the College “[r]esist any attempts to increase the size of the class until” a study of House occupancies was completed.
In addition to having the space to build new Houses, some faculty members argued that the growth of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences—which will see two-thirds of its faculty moved to Allston in 2020—is another reason why expanding the undergraduate population could be valuable, given that many undergraduates would likely be taking courses there.
“I think for those who argued for the possible expansion of the student body, it would be because we were beginning to engage in areas where Harvard had not been so publicly visible,” Kirby said, discussing how faculty viewed a possible expansion in the past. “For example, this was at the same time that we were establishing the new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.”
If Harvard were to expand, it would need to spend more on financial aid, although it would receive more revenue from tuition, according to Ivey. However, Ivey added that she did not believe the cost would be a significant burden for Harvard.
“I think a school that didn’t have as much money as Harvard would have to think about how to fund additional students who don’t have the means to pay,” Ivey said of Harvard’s financial aid program, which finances more than 60 percent of undergraduates. “Harvard doesn’t typically have those problems, so fortunately it doesn’t have to worry so much about how it’s going to finance students with demonstrated need.”
Harvard’s discussions about a possible undergraduate expansion follow decisions by several peer institutions—including Stanford, Yale, and Princeton—to increase the number of enrolled undergraduates and build additional housing.
Stanford is currently constructing additional undergraduate and graduate residence halls as part of an expansion effort first announced in 2013. Though the original plan called for the undergraduate population to begin expanding starting in fall 2016, Stanford spokesperson Lisa A. Lapin explained that the construction needs to be completed before more undergraduates can be accepted.
“While it is the intention of Stanford to slowly grow the undergraduate classes, it has not yet happened. We first need to have the housing to accommodate the additional students,” Lapin wrote in an emailed statement.
Yale spokesperson Tom Conroy wrote in an email that Yale’s two new residential colleges, set to open in fall 2017, will allow Yale to accept a freshman class of 1,550, compared to the current class size of 1,350—smaller than Harvard’s typical class size.
Princeton, meanwhile, is considering the construction of a seventh residential college, which would allow the university to expand its undergraduate population by 125 students per class. For the 2014-2015 academic year, Princeton enrolled 5,275 undergraduates.
This is the second time in the past two decades that Princeton has worked on an expansion effort. In response to recommendations in 2000 from a committee tasked with reviewing the size of the undergraduate body, Princeton also increased its undergraduate population by 125 students per class.
“If we’re serious about maximizing our impact on the world and maximizing diversity, the diversity of exposures that our students can have here, the single most important thing we can do is grow the size of our student body,” Summers said in an interview.
Until plans formulate, however, Harvard is expected to continue to accept a similar number of applicants each year—and Harvard’s acceptance rate will continue to drop, according to multiple experts.
“There’s no natural law that says… Harvard has to be ‘size Y.’ Those are just judgement calls,” Ivey said. “And they should be reevaluated on a regular basis.”