One of the most basic of the tenets of economics describes the relationship of supply and demand. It holds that the supply of a good or service in a free market will increase until it attains equilibrium with the demand for it at a certain price. As always, there are exceptions to the rule. One of the more obvious exceptions is the supply of seats in the freshman classes of elite private colleges and universities, a supply that’s stable from year-to-year with only marginal upward movement in response to higher demand.
No school exemplifies the imbalance between supply and demand more than Stanford University, which, as the most selective institution of higher learning in the country, accepts less than 1 out of every 20 applicants. In an attempt to mitigate this imbalance, Stanford is engaged in a long-term expansion program that will increase its undergraduate population from 7,000 to 8,700 students, an increase of 25%.
In late 2016, Stanford University unveiled its blueprint for growth, a plan that envisioned construction of nearly 2.3 million square feet of new academic buildings and 3,150 new housing units The University has stated that the expansion is essential to retaining its national leadership in teaching and research. The plan calls for 40,00 new square feet of on-campus childcare facilities and a mass transit hub. Between 2018 and 2035, campus development is set to increase by 20% at a rate of about 1.2% per year.
The plan eschews development in Stanford’s 2,000 acres of open space, an issue that has been contentious in the Palo Alto community. This ensures that the beloved foothills and the Stanford Arboretum will remain undeveloped. Instead, the University plans to develop its central campus more densely. To accommodate this growth without adding to local traffic, the University will also develop new mass transit capacity.
“The availability and affordability of housing is a critical challenge for the University,” said Jean McCown, vice president of government and community relations, “Stanford has been a residential community from the beginning, believing that providing on-campus housing helps connect students and faculty to the academic life of the University. To continue attracting and retaining faculty, particularly in a challenging housing market beyond the campus, the University believes it needs to continue making progress in providing on-campus housing.”
Some of the new student housing reflects anticipated growth in the undergraduate student body of about 100 students per year between now and 2035. Administrators began planning to increase undergraduate enrollment in 2007, and this expansion program is the means of implementing that growth. Since submitting its application in 2016, Stanford has been undergoing a long process of review by Santa Clara County to assess the environmental and community impacts that the development may have before approving the plan.
Many of the biggest names in private higher education have grown little in past decades despite the surge in demand for admission. Few of the nation’s elite liberal arts colleges plan to pursue growth due to its impact on their appeal as providers of small class sizes and robust residential education. Federal data shows that the entering class at Williams College, which U.S. News and World Report ranks first among liberal arts colleges, was 550 students in 2009. In following years the totals — 546, 548, 545 and 547 — were stable. This pattern has held true at similar colleges such as Swarthmore, Carleton, Amherst, Pomona, and Vassar.
In the top tier of private research universities, the data shows measurable expansion in the entering classes at Rice University (from 789 in 2008 to 978 in 2013), Washington University in St. Louis (from 1,429 in 2010 to 1,610 in 2013) and the University of Chicago (from 1,307 in 2013 to 1,426in 2016). Growth has been even less significant at other top national research universities with the exception of Yale University, which announced in 2016 that it is building two new residential colleges, enabling undergraduate enrollment to grow from 5,400 to 6,200, an increase of 15%.
To some extent, prestigious schools have little incentive to grow. If undergraduate enrollment remains stable while applications rise, then their admissions rates fall. Lower admission rates help schools maintain their competitive status in college rankings and in other comparative metrics. Hence, schools that don’t expand tend to become even more selective and prestigious.
However, there are also upsides to growth. More incoming students produce more tuition revenue. They facilitate the pursuit of a school’s mission to increase its diversity. More alumni provide more global exposure and a broader base of potential donors. There is also the argument that it is simply the right thing to do.
“The elite private universities are essentially the same size they were 40 years ago,” Stanford President John L. Hennessy told the Washington Post. “Meanwhile, the demand among highly prepared students has grown quickly. Public institutions took up much of the slack but that was in a time when the publics were healthier than they are today. A handful of private schools are not going to solve the problem, but don’t we have some moral responsibility to step up and educate a greater fraction of these highly talented students?”
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