Keep Stanford Small

On October 17, 2007, the Stanford Report revealed that President Hennessy was appointing a task force to “explore the idea of increasing the size of the freshman class—and, as a consequence, the overall undergraduate population of the university.” Hennessy’s proposal was supported by Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw, who told the Stanford Daily: “If you have the capacity and the will to provide the education to extremely qualified students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, then why wouldn’t you try to give more people access to a world class education?”

Shaw then added: “Admit rates might get higher, rising to about 12 or 13 percent, but to me, that’s meaningless.”

Expanding Stanford’s undergraduate population is a good idea in some respects. All other things being equal, it is good to spread the benefits of a Stanford education to more people.

Expansion could also help diversify Stanford’s population and allow people of more races, religions, creeds, and sexual orientations to be represented. By having more students, Stanford will also produce more graduates who will become distinguished in their own fields and add to Stanford’s reputation. Although short-term costs may increase due to the need to hire more professors and provide more financial aid, a larger undergraduate population will feed into a bigger alumni base that will contribute many more millions or billions to Stanford in the long term.

However, an oversized undergraduate population would also carry costs. Housing problems would be exacerbated. There will be longer queues at the dining halls, Treehouse, and Subway. Students would have fewer opportunities to interact and develop relationships with faculty. Popular classes would become even more crowded than they already are. These are potential issues that must be considered if Stanford is to expand.

Expansion is a possible way to achieve greater diversity. However, it is also arguable that Stanford could achieve this goal by diversifying the existing undergraduate population as well. For example, out of Stanford’s 6,689 undergraduates, 44% come from a single state—California—with New York and Texas representing most of the remaining 50% of non-Californian U.S. undergraduates. The American presence on Stanford is overwhelmingly represented by only three states out of fifty. In addition, huge nations like China, Russia, and India form only a fraction of the remaining 6% of students at Stanford. Given Stanford’s commitment to diversity, why not consider diversifying the existing undergraduate population as an alternative to drastically expanding it?

We must also consider the idea that Stanford should remain fairly selective in order to remain a magnet for the world’s top students, scientists, thinkers, and innovators. Rightly or wrongly, the public sees selectivity as an indicator of quality, and Stanford must respect that sentiment. Already, Stanford’s undergraduate population of 6,700 is bigger than that of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Duke, Dartmouth, and Brown. Moreover, of the 10 top American universities ranked by U.S. News and World Report, only one, the University of Pennsylvania, has more than 7,000 undergraduates.

Stanford’s admit rate is about 10.3%, which seems low until we note that Harvard’s admit rate is 9% and Princeton’s is 9.5%. Yet, neither Harvard nor Princeton seems to be contemplating massive expansion. In Asia, many top Asian universities have even lower acceptance rates. For example, India’s Institutes of Technology (IIT) typically receive about 300,000 applications for only 5,000 places– a 1.7% admit rate.

The Stanford leadership’s support of expansion rests on several assumptions—assumptions that need to be analyzed. One in particular is that top students will continue to rank Stanford as their top choice even if we increase the acceptance rate. But it is quite possible that if a top high school student has a choice between a new Stanford with 10,000 undergrads versus Harvard, which has only 5,000, he or she might choose Harvard simply because it offers fewer places and is thus more difficult to get into.

It is regrettable that Stanford must reject many students each year. But between a high rejection rate and a high acceptance rate, the former is by far the lesser of two evils.

There is an optimal size that Stanford’s undergraduate population can reach before the costs of expansion outweigh the benefits. Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict or measure that number. Therefore, if the Stanford leadership still decides to expand the undergraduate population, they should do it carefully and incrementally. Instead of adding a thousand extra students in a single year, they should simply add a dozen, fifty, or even a hundred extra students to each cohort—so that they can carefully evaluate the effects of each increase on our academic environment. If these small population increases prove beneficial, then it might make sense to have further increases. In this way, it would be easier to tell when Stanford’s population has grown to that optimal point where further increases might have detrimental effects.

At this early stage, it is unclear what the size of the proposed increases are—i.e. whether we’re talking about adding a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand students. Ultimately, it is essential to have an open debate on the proposed undergraduate population expansion. Whether student, faculty, or alumni, everyone has an interest in ensuring that any change in the undergraduate population will improve, not hamper, Stanford’s educational environment and its ability to contribute to society.

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