I recently attended a student forum concerning the proposed expansion of Yale College. As most of us know by now, the plan calls for the construction of two new residential colleges on the North side of Grove Cemetery. The forum was meant to allow students the chance to ask questions or voice concerns about the expansion. Despite the administration’s assurances that no final decision has been made, it is clear to me that the new colleges will be built, barring some sudden groundswell of disapproval on campus.
Judging from the sparse attendance at the forum, most students do not seem to care very much one way or the other. But I think expansion could negatively affect the Yale experience in several ways — and students should be paying closer attention.
The main argument for expansion stems from anxiety over the ever-decreasing rate of admissions at the college. Last year Yale College admitted less than nine percent of all applicants. Proponents of expansion welcome the opportunity to admit more deserving students, especially international students.
Statistically, however, the new colleges will make little difference in Yale’s admission rate. The two colleges would house about 800 students between them. Administrators plan to reduce the number of students in some existing colleges (in order to alleviate the housing crunch for upperclassmen), so only about 650 of these slots will go to expanding the size of the admitted class. Spread out across four classes, this translates into about 150 new slots each year. Yale currently receives about 20,000 applications per year, and admits about 1850. After expansion, Yale would admit about 200 additional applicants each year at our current matriculation rate of roughly 75 percent. In other words, we are talking about a shift in the acceptance rate from 9 percent to 10 percent.
If the number of applicants continues to increase as it has in the past, then by the time the two new colleges open six or seven years from now, it seems likely — even with the 200 extra slots — that Yale’s admissions rate will be lower than what it is today. It could easily fall to 7 percent or less. Even if ten new colleges were built, Yale would still be forced to reject more than 80 percent of its applicants. The proposed expansion, therefore, will do little to change the fact that Yale must turn away many deserving students.
What will the expansion do then? Proponents argue that it will allow the university to expand the faculty. But that could be done without expanding the student body. And the overcrowding at some residential colleges — another issue of concern — could be solved simply by accepting fewer students into those colleges in the first place (although, admittedly, that would exacerbate the problem of accepting so few students overall).
While expansion would not do much to change the admissions rate, it would represent a significant increase in the size of the student body. 650 new students would represent a 13 percent increase in the size of the student body. That’s 100 more history majors vying for the best seminars, 13 percent more competition for a slot in a Harold Bloom course, 13 percent more competition for the Whiffenpoofs. Expanding the faculty and course offerings cannot compensate for the loss of access to the most desirable courses and activities on campus. Not all classes are equal. Future Yalies will have less of the best that is offered here if the expansion goes forward.
Ultimately, the most important goal before us should be preserving the best aspects of the Yale experience. If half of all incoming freshmen no longer have a chance to live on Old Campus (the new colleges would, like Timothy Dwight and Silliman, house freshmen all four years) will that take away something important about the Yale experience? If the best professors become even harder to access, will the Yale education lose value? I think so.
I am not convinced that a bigger Yale will be a better Yale. The old socialists used to have a motto, “Growth for the sake of growth is a cancer.” If we expand simply to accommodate our growing applicant pool, then we are missing the point. Preserving the quality of the education here is far more important. Yale has expanded many times over its history, but at some point that expansion must come to an end — otherwise Yale will cease to exist as a single community of scholars. The bigger Yale gets, the further we all get from one another.
Nathan Harden is a junior in Berkeley College.