Yale College may be one step closer to the first major change in its residential system for almost half a century, as University President Richard Levin announced official plans on Thursday to convene committees to examine the possibility of two new residential colleges.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey will coordinate two committees, one addressing the implications of the proposed expansion on student life and the other on academic life, Levin said in an e-mail to Yale College students and faculty. Levin told the News on Thursday night that the potential colleges could provide enough housing to increase the student body by 600 to 800 students, in addition to relieving overcrowding in the existing colleges. The committees will present a final report early next semester, and the Yale Corporation will vote on the report’s recommendations in December.

This is the first concerted effort to expand Yale College since a failed attempt to construct several new colleges in the early 1970s. At that time, the planned expansion met strong opposition from New Haven community leaders and the city government and was eventually abandoned. But this time around, community and labor leaders are excited at the potential for Yale’s growth.

“I think particularly reflecting over a decade or more of working together, we’ve arrived at this place where we recognize this wonderfully mutual interest between the University and the city,” New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said in an interview Monday when asked about the possibility of Yale’s expanding.

Local 35 president Bob Proto said the new colleges would be a considerable boon to the community because of the additional employees that would be required to maintain them.

“These are jobs with good wages and health care benefits and so that alone is reason for us to be optimistic,” Proto said. “The growth of our union is important to us as we grow with the University.”

A growth in the size of the undergraduate population, which currently numbers around 5,300 students, could have a significant impact on the academic and social culture of the University. Former Calhoun College Master William Sledge, who will chair the student life committee, said he and Levin have had an ongoing dialogue about the potential effects of expansion for 12 years. The first priority of the committee will be to ensure that the Yale College experience is not negatively impacted, he said.

“What we don’t want to do is disrupt the balance of the culture,” Sledge said. “There is a point where when something becomes too big, it loses its spirit.”

The committee will examine Harvard’s house system when making its considerations, he said. While Harvard has the same number of residential houses as Yale has colleges — 12 — Harvard College has 6,700 students enrolled, making it considerably larger than Yale College.

Increasing the number of students in Yale College would have implications for graduate programs as well. The growth in the number of undergraduate students would allow for a larger faculty, which could in turn affect the size of graduate programs, Graduate School Dean John Butler said.

“I think that it would be appropriate for Yale as an institution to expand somewhat from its current size because I think that will make it a more powerful institution and it must be a more powerful institution as we go farther and deeper into the 21st century,” Butler said.

But Levin said the expansion is in no way certain. If the committees find that the growth would have a detrimental effect on the Yale College experience, then it is completely possible that the University will not proceed in planning to increase its capacity, Levin said.

Expansion might not be possible at all if Yale did not have such a strong residential college system, Salovey said. A growth in students can best be considered in the context of the growth of the college system, which Yale adopted in the early 1930s, he said.

“Such a strong residential college tradition is probably the most important factor in what makes Yale special,” Salovey said. “And if we didn’t have the strong residential college system, it would be much more difficult to contemplate any kind of expansion.”

A study conducted by the University budget office laid out the potential expenses associated with creating two colleges, which Levin said would likely cost several hundred million dollars each to construct. But Levin said the initial projections, which include increasing staff, faculty, student services, maintenance and utilities are rough estimates and simply provide a starting point for the committees.

Three students selected by the Yale College Council will sit on each committee, along with faculty and administrators. Yale College Council Secretary Zach Marks ’09 said the YCC has not yet decided what its selection criteria will be, but that it will consider candidates through an application process.