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M.I.T. Considers Increase in Student Body by 300–and Swears It's Not About Revenue

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During rough economic times, it’s hard to get at the reasons college make policy changes. According to Jacques Steinberg in today’s New York Times, M.I.T. is considering an increase in the size of its student body.

On its face, this is simply a move to return the campus to the size it was back in the 1980s and 1990s, when 4,500 students roamed the Cambridge campus.  But with a policy change back then that required all freshmen to live in dormitories, the campus enrollment fell to about 4,200.  So the move seems like an attempt to return the campus to its traditional, historic size.

The Dean of Admission, Stewart Schmill, denies that the move to increase the student body has anything to do with revenue targets.  He pointed out that new dormitories will need to be built (which generally pay for themselves quite nicely, as the rents are guaranteed). He also pointed out that the move to expand enrollment may not happen in one fell swoop.  Plus, M.I.T. practices “need blind” admissions, so more financial aid will have to be allocated to the 300 new students.

I’m skeptical, frankly.  The fact is that many universities, especially large, research-oriented universities, have budgets that depend on a healthy revenue stream from undergraduate admissions.  It’s simply a numbers game–a sort of revenue pyramid.  In order to pay for expensive graduate programs, universities need plenty of undergrads to provide the bedrock financial foundation to support them.  Undergrad course sizes can be bigger so that graduate courses can be smaller.

So when a major institution of any type makes a decision to expand–or contract–and swears that the motivation has nothing to do with economics–well, I’m just a teensy bit cynical.

Here’s my logic.  Colleges are businesses.  Businesses make decisions based not on nostalgia, but on the financial interests of the business.  Ergo….

Whatever the truth, we’ll likely never know much more than what Schmill told Steinberg.  A private university like M.I.T. can keep its finances private.  So we’ll just take Schmill at his word.  Nostalgia for those halcyon days of 4,500!  Oh, how we miss those vital 300 students, who made our campus so much more vibrant and fun.  Ah, me….

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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