How big is big enough?
By Jamie Kelly
Over the past decade, Cornell's reputation as a leading liberal arts college has grown. Academic programs have expanded and national recognition has increased. And now the college is planning to grow in another way—by expanding enrollment while retaining the same character.
Consider that nearly half of the top 125 national liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News and World Report have more than 2,000 students. Only 17 of those schools, many of which serve niche audiences, are smaller than Cornell, which was ranked 81 in 2010, and has an enrollment of 1,191.
Research by George Dehne & Associates since the 1990s has shown that higher education is following the bigger-is-better movement. "In our national studies, we see that small size has become less attractive generally—a fact that makes recruitment for the smaller college more difficult regardless of whether it is public or private," Dehne said. "To compete with larger size, small colleges must be able to demonstrate greater flexibility that results in greater opportunities. This means the small college must make it easy to customize each student's educational experience through double majors, original research, collaborative research, study abroad, self-designed majors, independent study, and so forth."
Greater opportunities—extraordinary opportunities, to be exact—are exactly what Cornell sells. And yet in a highly competitive market, size still matters. According to their research, Dehne says only 8 percent of all college-bound students are interested in a college with 2,000 or fewer students.
"In order to keep Cornell strong, we need to increase enrollment," said John Smith '71, chair of the board of trustees. "Students are attracted to schools with larger enrollments, and this will ensure we continue to attract the best classes."
Cornell's enrollment growth is strategically planned to be incremental, first to 1,300 students, and then beyond. In order to determine how big the college should be, said interim President Jim Brown, the college will add students gradually over time and reassess, based on facilities capacity and cultural concerns. There haven't been studies that address how growth might affect the culture of a college like Cornell, he said, and preserving the things that make Cornell attractive in the first place—student involvement, small class sizes, personal attention from faculty and a vibrant, connected community—is essential.
Increasing enrollment doesn't happen by fiat; there are numerous interrelated pieces that need to fit together.
"You need to attract good students and retain the ones who attend," Brown said. "You need to expand the depth and breadth of both academic programs and the co-curricular offerings. You need to look at students' experiences in residence life. You need to make sure there are places for them to eat, to sleep, to socialize. You need to look at how facilities are being used and how they need to be improved. And you need money to pay for all of those things."
Ten to 20 years ago students thought a small college was about 1,000 students. Now small starts at 1,200 to 1,500, said Jonathan Stroud, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission.
"Increasing enrollment should put us in a more attractive position in the marketplace, in attracting students and in becoming even more diverse. Enrollment growth should also enable the college to further invest in its academic and campus life programs, making them even stronger," Stroud said.
That's the first reason to consider growth: to make sure Cornell continues to attract the best and the brightest, and that those best and brightest graduate from Cornell four years later.
There's an economic rationale, as well. Running a college is what an economist would call a high fixed-cost operation. That is to say, some of the things—buildings, services, library—cost the same or very nearly same whether you have 1,000 students or 1,500 students. The difference, of course, is with 1,500 students, the cost is spread around more.
Because of the large amount of fixed costs, changes in enrollment have a significant impact on the amount of resources available for other purposes. "A change of enrollment