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Is Small Still Beautiful at Dartmouth College?

Dartmouth College, founded in 1769 in the bucolic hills of northern New Hampshire, is a private, highly selective institution and one of the eight Ivy League schools. It has a total enrollment of only 4,307 students in its undergraduate programs, yet U.S. News & World Report ranks it #11 among National Universities in their most recent Best Colleges edition.

The students, alumni, and administrators of Dartmouth are proud of the fact that their undergraduate school is the smallest in the Ivy League and has the lowest faculty-to-student ratio at 7:1. For this reason, they have chosen to retain the designation “College” for their undergraduate programs even though they’re among the country’s best research universities. Graduate programs at Dartmouth include the highly ranked Tuck School of Business, Thayer School of Engineering, and Geisel School of Medicine.

Recently, the College’s administrators and Board have been considering an increase of their undergraduate enrollment by 25%, but they still seek to protect their image as a small college. To do so, they must contend with the perception that any growth would look like a solution to a financial problem—the fact that the school’s operating deficit was $112 million in 2016. (It should be noted that about half of the loss was $54 million in one-time charges to cover a shortfall at the Geisel School of Medicine). Overall, expenses rose 3% to $918 million in 2016 and revenue declined 2% to $860 million. Dartmouth can afford a few years of operating losses with its large endowment of $4.5 billion, but critics feel that more fiscal discipline is required from the administration.

Dartmouth administrators insist that the rationale for potential growth isn’t to produce more revenue. They base their case on the fact that enrollment is growing organically through an increasingly high yield rate. This year, 61% of students admitted to Dartmouth’s Class of 2021 chose to enroll. This is the strongest response to Dartmouth’s offers of admission in 25 years. The college’s yield rate has historically been about 50%.

The quality of admitted students has been increasing, with 93% graduating in the top 10% of their high school classes. Average verbal SAT scores were up 17 points over the last year and up 21 points to 744 in average math scores. The mean ACT scores for entering students increased from 32.1 to 32.3. The percentage of students who reside outside the United States increased from 8% to 12%; 10% of the Class of 2021 students are from other countries, the largest percentage in the school’s history.

Some consider Dartmouth’s 237-acre campus and its physical plant to be too small to accommodate growth. This has actually been the case since the school introduced its vaunted D-Plan, a year-round quarter system devised when the college started admitting women in the 1970s. The D-Plan, the result of a desire to admit women without displacing men, rotates students on and off campus. It has successfully enabled Dartmouth to enroll more students without adding facilities or enlarging the student body during any one quarter. However, the D-Plan has long since maxed-out as a way to allow more students to be enrolled simultaneously within the existing infrastructure and faculty size.

Although all other Ivy League institutions have been growing faster than it has, Dartmouth’s ability to convince faculty, alumni, and prospective students that it will remain a small college is vital to the success of any plan for growth in undergraduate enrollment. Dartmouth’s identity has long been closely tied to the idea of smallness. Inside Higher Ed recently related a favorite story from the College’s history in the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, an 1819 Supreme Court case. As an attorney, Daniel Webster, an alumnus who would later go on to great fame as a U.S. senator, represented Dartmouth. He made an emotional plea for Dartmouth, saying it was a small college, “and yet there are those who love it.”

According to the Concord Monitor, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon has stated that a larger student body means more graduates, which would “amplify our impact on the world.” But due to the complexity of the issue of growth, Dartmouth has formed a task force that is examining the matter and considering a number of scenarios. Dartmouth has been careful to convey that no decision has yet been made. The role of the task force is to explore the costs and benefits of expansion, including such factors as how to accommodate additional students and what the impact may be to the quality of education.

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