How big is big enough?
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.
With an enrollment of nearly 1,200, Cornell is ranked in the top tier of national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report, but its enrollment is smaller than more than 80 percent of the other colleges on that list.
|Fewer than 1,000 students||9%|
|1,000 to 1,199 students||9%|
|1,200 to 1,349 students||5%|
|1,350 to 1,499 students||11%|
|1,500 to 1,799 students||16%|
|1,800 to 1,999 students||7%|
|More than 2,000 students||43%|
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 of 25 students can change the resources available by several hundred thousand dollars,” said Karen Mercer, vice president for business affairs. “That variability makes it hard to commit money to projects and initiatives.”
Cornell depends a lot on revenue from tuition, and that’s especially true given the poor market conditions for the endowment over the past four or five years. In order to build the endowment back up, the spend rate has been reduced from 6 percent to 5 percent beginning in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. That change results in a $500,000 decrease in annual spending from the endowment.
And while things are better now, added Brown, no one thinks we’ll see a return to the economic growth of the 1990s.
Growth is a financial reality, Stroud said. In order to continue to provide high-quality education, Cornell needs to attract more students. Those students, in turn, mean more revenue for the college and more money that can be invested in academic programs. And the college is already well-positioned. There has been steady enrollment growth over the past 10 years, from under 1,000 in 2001 to the record enrollment of 1,191 this year. Stroud said 2011 marked the second-highest number of applications.
“The college’s enrollment has steadily increased over the last four to five years. We have received record numbers of applicants for admission and consistently enrolled the academically strongest and most diverse first-year classes in our history,” he said. “We have a strong foundation for considering enrollment growth for the right reasons.”
Part of the reason the college is ready, he said, is the recently-completed Extraordinary Opportunities Campaign. The campaign helped launch Dimensions, the Berry Center, the Center for Law and Society (formerly the Pre-Law program) and more. Those initiatives have made Cornell even more attractive, he said.
The first step is getting them to Cornell.
Applications have nearly quadrupled in the past 10 years, from 1,400 to about 4,000, Stroud said. Part of that is due to the ease of applying to schools using the common application, and part is that thanks to the Internet, high school students have access to more information about more colleges than ever before.
The trick isn’t just getting students to apply, though. It’s getting the right students to apply and admitting the right students. Cornell’s team tries to interview every applicant, and unlike some schools that look only at GPAs, the admission team takes writing samples and letters of recommendation seriously.
They look for achievement-oriented, intellectually curious students who they think will thrive on campus. They also look for what the students will bring to campus beyond the classroom, Stroud said, and how they’ll fit into the college community.
And he’s confident that the process is working.
“Strategic efforts to systematically grow enrollment will not change our fundamental mission regarding student recruitment. Ultimately our enrollment success depends on our ability to attract and to retain students who are a strong fit academically and personally with the Cornell College community. We’re looking for students who will thrive here and contribute to the vitality of campus life,” Stroud observed.
There’s more to growth than just admitting more students, of course. For one, there are facilities bottlenecks on campus that limit how many students can be at Cornell right now.
The first limit is the most basic requirement—a place for them to sleep.
For the 2010–11 academic year, residence halls were running at 98 percent capacity, said John Harp, vice president for student affairs. About 110 students live off campus. Half of those are seniors and the other half are 23 or older, married, live with their families near campus or have children.
But there’s not much more room for seniors to live off campus in Mount Vernon. There have never been many apartments available around town, so their options are limited. This year, there were 1,074 students on campus and 1,093 beds. That leaves an average of 1.5 beds open in each residence hall to move people to in case of illness, conflict or some other reason. That makes moving people challenging, Harp said, and it would be compounded if the college moves to 100 percent capacity.
To that end, the college is offering a new option on a trial basis this year; 14 students will live in a wing of the Sleep Inn in Mount Vernon next year. The hotel had more rooms than it could fill on a regular basis, and the arrangement will allow the college to grow a little while planning for further facilities upgrades, Brown said.
The students who’ll live there are juniors and seniors, and they will share seven double rooms with queen-size beds. An eighth room will serve as a common area and kitchen, and the wing where students live will be behind a locked door that only they’ll be able to access.
If it works, there’s the possibility of housing more students there in the future, Brown said.
Moving forward, there are a few options for finding more housing, he said. One option is the traditional route—building a residence hall. Another is having the college work with developers, either to build apartments near campus that would be attractive to students or to contract with them to build student housing as an investment. The final option is finding more partnerships like the one with the Sleep Inn, which allow students a mix of traditional residence life—an RA, a meal plan, roommates—and non-traditional experiences.
Programs like the Sleep Inn are key to growing, Mercer said, because the college can’t build a new dorm or work with a developer to build apartments until there are enough students to fill them. So as the college continues to grow, partnerships to develop non-traditional living spaces for students are important.
Moving beyond facilities bottlenecks
Once the students are here, they need something to do—they don’t spend every waking moment studying, after all. And that’s where the Department of Student Affairs helps with both recruiting new students and retaining ones who are already on campus.
The perception of the quality of student life has an enormous impact on whether students decide to attend or not, Harp said. One of the most effective recruitment tools is to have prospective students interact with current students.
To ensure the quality of life remains high, the college has placed a high priority on improving the Thomas Commons. Built in 1966, The Commons has been largely unchanged in 45 years, and is already hard-pressed to handle the needs of a student body with 250 more members than when it opened (see related story).
Then there’s the problem of feeding a hundred or more new students. Part of the plan for the Thomas Commons will include improved food service facilities, Brown said. The main cafeteria is congested already, and part of that has to do with both the layout and the fact that the food is cooked on the lower level and brought up through two small elevators to the top floor.
And students today have different expectations than students of the ’60s, Brown said, so making sure the Thomas Commons meets their needs is a key aspect to recruiting. After all, nearly every student passes through the building nearly every day and they eat an average of 800 meals a year there.
The facilities bottlenecks don’t just affect student life, though. Limited space in the science and fine arts buildings need to be addressed before enrollment can surpass about 1,300 students, said Joe Dieker, dean of the college.
One of the advantages of the move to eight blocks from nine is that it will allow more classes each block, Dieker said, which allows the college to increase enrollment even as it plans for future needs. The switch to eight blocks, which will start during the 2012-13 academic year, means the college can start to increase enrollment without having to hire as many new faculty members, Dieker said. “An eight-block year lets us be more flexible and still retain our character,” he said.
But there are challenges, as well. More classes each block means more classrooms being used. And that puts pressure on buildings that are already nearly full.
The college is working to expand a basement classroom in West Science, Mercer said, as well as renovating some classrooms in Norton Geology Center. And more classrooms are getting projectors, computers, and other technology, which gives the college flexibility about where classes can take place. And additional classrooms in the Thomas Commons are another piece of that puzzle, Mercer said.
Once The Commons project is finished, she said, the next step has to be renovating West Science. Many students are attracted to Cornell because of programs like Dimensions, which are grounded in the sciences, she said.
Academic quality remains priority
Academic rigor is key to recruiting good students, and Dieker said the college plans to build on its recent successes. The faculty adopted revisions to the graduation requirements that would allow more flexibility and make sure students have an interdisciplinary focus. The economics and business department has proposed a business minor. There will be more changes to the curriculum, he said, but one thing won’t change—Cornell’s commitment to the liberal arts.
One program that has already benefited from becoming more interdisciplinary, he said, is the environmental studies program. Because of a $300,000 grant, faculty have been able to develop new classes in the Boundary Waters, the Bahamas, and South America. Biology, anthropology, English classes and more go at the same time, and meet daily to share information. That ensures a healthy cross-pollination between the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, he said.
The difficult part about growing is making sure that what’s made Cornell so special—connections between faculty and students, whether as teachers, advisors or researchers—doesn’t go away.
In a document laying out the guiding principles for growth at Cornell (see below), one of the points is that the student/faculty ratio will remain less than 15:1.
The key to that, Brown said, is to make sure Cornell recruits and gives tenure to the right faculty, ones who are committed to undergraduate teaching, who understand how to balance their own scholarly and creative work with the work of teaching and advising students. Part of the key to retention, he said, is the emotional bond formed between students and faculty.
“We can’t have that connection go away,” he said. “It makes a huge impact on the student experience.”
As Cornell’s administration and faculty prepare for increasing enrollment, they created a list of principles to guide the process. Here are some of those principles.
- Continue to value our One Course At A Time calendar
- Support a culture of strong student-faculty interaction and maintain a student-faculty ratio of less than 15:1
- Offer a diversity of quality co-curricular programs appropriate for an evolving student population
- Continue to be a nationally recognized residential liberal arts college
- Enroll academically qualified students whose backgrounds, talents, and interests would contribute to a vital campus culture
- Strive to attract and retain diverse and highly qualified faculty, administrators, and staff who will engage in a student-centered education experience