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Columns

The Case for Increasing Undergraduate Enrollment

By Camille G. Caldera
By Jonah S. Berger, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jonah S. Berger ’21, a former Associate News editor, is an Economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

For decades, the size of Harvard’s student body hasn’t budged. Despite more and more proof of the sky-high value of a Harvard College degree and the University’s continuously growing applicant pool, administrators haven’t taken the logical next step: to let in more students.

Harvard now sits fourth among the eight Ivy League schools in its undergraduate enrollment totals, trailing Penn and Cornell substantially, as well as Brown by a small amount.

Yet Harvard might be the only one in this elite club to have seen such stagnant growth in its enrollment for so long. About 2,200 high schoolers were admitted to Harvard’s Class of 1982. That number was 2,147 in 1992, 2,074 in the mid-2000s, and just 1,980 for this year’s freshman class. Because the yield rate — the percentage of admits who choose to enroll — has risen steadily since the 1980s, the freshman class has stood virtually unchanged at approximately 1,600 students for more than four decades.

Yet Cornell, Dartmouth, and Brown have all seen their student bodies grown by at least 15 percent since the 1980s. Yale’s enrollment was steady for decades until it expanded its freshman classes by nearly 20 percent beginning with the Class of 2021. Harvard’s enrollment? No significant change to speak of.

Upping total admits by, say, 20 percent, would be a huge start. Just that small increase, administered thoughtfully, would help the University begin to atone for its dark history of class- and race-based exclusion by wielding its most precious asset — the golden ticket of admission.

So what could the University do with these 320 highly sought-after new spots?

How about using 300 of them to admit only students from the bottom 50 percent of the United States’ income distribution? After all, the College’s lack of socioeconomic diversity is downright pitiful (almost as many students hail from the top 0.1 percent of the income spectrum as from the entire bottom 20 percent).

Perhaps the final 20 new spots could go to members of Massachusetts’s Indigenous communities, on whose ancestral land Harvard now occupies.

Yes, growing the freshman class would let the University have its cake and eat it too. Rather than adopting needed reforms like ending preferences for legacy students, the expansion would allow Harvard to tout its increased socioeconomic diversity without upsetting its most influential donors. Yet these reforms clearly aren’t in the offing, and we have no time to lose.

Aside from the positive press that an enrollment boost aimed at low-income Americans would produce, consider all that these new students would bring to campus. Vital new perspectives. The grit, ambition, and wherewithal that comes from weathering financial adversity.

Well, how about the price tag? Let’s say, at most, $150,000 per student each year (almost all new enrollees would receive full financial aid of roughly $75,000, on top of costs Harvard absorbs even for its full-tuition-paying students). That’s less than $200 million in additional expenses annually with all four class years expanded by 20 percent.

Compared to the eye-popping $9.6 billion capital campaign the University wrapped up in 2018 ($1.3 billion of which went towards financial aid), that investment seems entirely attainable, either drawn from the existing round of fundraising or a new one devoted to this effort in particular.

So how might Harvard administrators respond to this proposal? “We just don’t have the physical space to grow our enrollment,” they might say. Harvard Yard can’t get bigger, after all!

Yet for years, the College has already been placing students in overflow housing. It began with DeWolfe, then the Inn, and then other makeshift apartments in Harvard Square. And almost by the day, Harvard is inking new land deals in Allston. How about a plot devoted to new dorms?

Or better yet, to avoid further gentrifying the other side of the Charles River, let’s avoid new dorms altogether. Now that so many undergraduates have experienced off-campus living during the Covid-19 pandemic, the cat might be out of the bag. Paying Harvard more than $18,000 for room and board? Going in with a few roommates for an apartment near the Square now seems to many like a better deal.

The issue of Harvard’s enrollment size came up briefly in 2018, when Joshua S. Goodman, a former assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, suggested expanding the student bodies at elite schools amid the ongoing admissions lawsuit against the University, in order to “lower everyone's blood pressure when it comes to admissions.”

Yet apart from such rare mentions, Harvard’s enrollment gets very little attention. Well, it should.

On top of letting the country enjoy more YouTube videos of teary high schoolers finding out about their acceptance to Harvard, Harvard’s precious admissions slots could be employed for truly bold and noble ends. What are we waiting for?

Jonah S. Berger ’21, a former Associate News editor, is an Economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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