When the University’s endowment rapidly declined during the economic recession of the 1970s, the administration’s solution to raising revenue was simple: increase the size of the student body. While the 1970s have long passed, the University is now reflecting on that era for inspiration amid its 20 percent endowment loss for the first quarter of Fiscal Year (FY) 2009.
Last week, the administration and the Board of Trustees revealed several proposals for grappling with the University’s dwindling endowment, one of which would expand the undergraduate class size by 30 students over the next four years, for a total of 120 additional students by 2013. The expanded class size would generate a reported $3.9 million in additional revenue by the fourth year.
“Right now, the expectation is that Wesleyan’s endowment will worsen,” said Saul Carlin, vice president of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA). “These proposals are meant to prevent a deficit from damaging Wesleyan’s long-term capacity.”
While the University is assessing the proposal in terms of its ability to raise revenue, many students argue that the administration is dismissing the long-term consequences of expanding the undergraduate class.
WSA President Mike Pernick worries that if the University continues to overshoot the number of students it admits, the subsequent classes may swell to nearly 800 students.
“While Wesleyan’s target is 715, we’ve seen classes with 730 or 745 students,” he said. “If our new target is 745, we could be as many as 50 to 60 students over.”
One immediate impact of this change would occur in housing. Residential Life (ResLife) has already experienced difficulty in maintaining class-appropriate housing, and the proposal would further place a burden on this process. Additionally, since this proposal is for revenue-enhancing purposes, no new dorms would be constructed to house the 120 students.
“We have used temporary triples in the past for first year students…and that will likely be a small part of the overall plan,” said Fran Koerting, director of ResLife, in an e-mail to The Argus. “We are also looking at spaces where we could create new bedrooms over the next few years. At this point in the planning, we are still exploring additional options, so it is too early to say definitively.”
With the additional students and the strain on the budget, though, finding places to house the undergraduate class could become increasingly difficult. According to Carlin, at least one-third of the freshman class would be placed in triples, more juniors would live in Hewitt, and a handful of seniors would be placed in Low Rise or High Rise.
However, according to John Meerts, vice president of Finance and Administration, the proposal would have a minimal impact on housing, particularly since some years have seen larger class sizes than the University expected.
“We have dealt with this uncertainty without it becoming a big strain on our resources,” he said. “So we believe that having the extra students, while not going unnoticed, will not cause a tremendous strain on our physical resources.”
Students, however, remain skeptical of where these additional students would be housed.
“The impacts are going to trickle-down with each class,” Carlin said. “Right now, class-appropriate housing is already a fragile statement.”
Although ResLife currently discourages off-campus housing, students noted that this policy would have to become more lenient to make room for the additional students.
“A potential solution to this would be to let more students live off-campus, but we’re a residential campus,” Pernick said. “Undermining or changing that would be detrimental.”
Carlin pointed out that the impacts of this proposal could span beyond housing to include course access, advising and even dining. More students means more competition for spots in classes, more difficulty finding an advisor, and longer lines and crowds for dining.
In his campus-wide e-mail announcing the proposal, President Michael Roth maintained that if needed, additional courses would be added to facilitate class access. However, this would require finding the space in which to hold these classes, as well as hiring additional professors, which most directly conflicts with the revenue-enhancing purposes of the proposal.
For Professor of Psychology, Emeritus Karl Scheibe, who came to the University in 1963 and witnessed the implications of the University’s decision to expand class size from 1100 to 2800 students in the early 1970s, the new proposal appears shortsighted.
“In general, I believe that expanding class size as a means of helping to balance the budget is a terrible idea,” he said. “But these are terrible times—our financial difficulties are severe and not likely to improve all of a sudden. My understanding is that the administration proposes this increase to be ’temporary.’ Someone should hold their feet to the fire if the increase endures beyond four years.”
As Scheibe points out, the precise wording of the proposal does not specify when this “temporary” measure would expire. While the proposal states that class size would expand for the next four years, nowhere does it articulate that this measure would end after 2013. The administration, too, has refrained from specifying the proposal’s expiration date.
“Having these additional students increases the student body by about 4 percent after a four year period of time, but it is part of the measures we are taking which allows us to keep our core academic programs intact,” Meerts wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “This is a decision which is reversible: when we are in better financial shape we can reduce the number of students back to the number we are at now.”
Consequently, students and faculty are concerned that these temporary changes, if made permanent, would undermine the Wesleyan experience.
“The idea is to increase enrollment by 120 students, then to drop back to 715 students ’if able,’” Carlin said. “If we have to maintain this increase, then it could have serious consequences on the school.”
Scheibe agreed that the long-term impacts of this proposal could outweigh the immediate ones.
“It seems like a small increment, but [expanding class size] will result in a finite decline in the quality of our educational product and the comfort level of students and faculty members,” he said.
Students are being encouraged to propose other solutions to raising $4 million, ones that would have less of an impact on student life.
“I hope that students will step up and look beyond their four years here to voice their concerns about this proposal,” Carlin said. “I think there are ways to come up with $4 million without eliminating financial aid or professors’ positions.”
Simon Davis-Millis ’12, whose class will most feel the effects of the change by senior year, feels that the University’s proposal should not be the only one on the table.
“If the University needs more money and this is a viable option, then it should be a last resort,” he said. “Its effects may likely downgrade the quality of the University for everyone.”
Others, like Sam Schillit ’10, disagree with these implications.
“While it puts everyone in a tight spot, it gives more people the opportunity to come and enjoy this place,” she said. “Triples may be frustrating, but those additional students would contribute to Wes.”
Scheibe noted that students should proceed cautiously when evaluating this proposal, regardless of where they stand on the issue.
“Extraordinary problems might warrant extraordinary measures,” Scheibe said. “But we should all be aware of the dangers of this solution.”