The GAO Report: The Nonsense of Freshman Expansion

Opinion by Shelley Gao
Feb. 1, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

The GAO Report: The Nonsense of Freshman ExpansionThe Office of Undergraduate Admission announced last Wednesday that a University-record 32,000 high school students applied for admission to Stanford, an increase of 5.6 percent over last year’s similarly high level. As the admissions rate continues to decrease, let’s hope that this surge will not trigger another “well-intentioned,” yet misguided effort, to expand the freshman class.

Along with streamlining operations, cutting bureaucracy and eliminating waste (despite shrill protests by vocal interest groups), a positive outcome of the University budget crisis has been a halt to the undergraduate expansion plans. Since the economy seems to be slowly recovering, it is important to once again establish that increasing the size of the freshman class is a risky and even detrimental proposition.

This expansion debate was originally triggered by President Hennessy’s column in the September/October 2007 issue of the Stanford Alumni Magazine. A Task Force on Undergraduate Expansion was established in January 2008 to conduct outreach and solicit opinions from various stakeholders including current students.

Unfortunately, the level of engagement from students was disappointing, judging from the minimal attendance at town halls and focus groups. There is a disturbing level of apathy toward a proposal that will, if implemented, fundamentally alter the Stanford experience.

Let me systematically evaluate the supposed “benefits” of increasing the freshman class. An argument originally put forth in support of expansion notes that increasing the number of admitted students allows for more opportunity to “broaden the perspectives and experiences of the student body as a whole.”

Having more people, however, does not mean that the student body will engage with each other more than before. There seems to be a missing causal link. If fostering exchange is really the goal, there are plenty of less drastic approaches. For example, greater funding for student groups or investing in other “perspective-broadening” programs like studying abroad and public service in Washington D.C.

The notion that Stanford needs to compete for market share after the recent expansion of our peer institutions is also problematic upon examination. Currently, Princeton, Yale and Harvard have 5,047, 5,316 and 6,715 undergraduates, respectively. Stanford already has the largest undergraduate population at 6,812.

Improving diversity is another argument articulated by pro-expansion forces. With the exception of historically black colleges, Stanford already has one of the most diverse student bodies in the United States. More than half of undergraduates are students of color and approximately 17 percent are among the first in their families to attend college. What exactly are we diversifying? Socio-economic backgrounds? First generations? Geographic locations? International students? Perhaps a more effective way to promote diversity would be providing more support for minority and first-generation students already attending Stanford to ensure there is no achievement gap.

Believing that Stanford has a moral and social responsibility to allow more talented students to access a world-class education is admirable but flawed. First, quality is not defined by numerical standards here. The beauty of admissions at Stanford is that it is holistic, and that quality means being the best compared to other applicants in a given year. One cannot make a comparison of quality between students from different class years.

Second, the baby boom echoes the demographic trend causing a peak in the number of graduating high school seniors. A decline in applicants is inevitable.

Third, it is arrogant to assume that Stanford is the only place that offers an excellent college education. Talented applicants will most likely be offered admission by many other fine institutions.

Finally and most importantly, what about the University’s duty to its current students? Year after year, there have been complaints about inadequate underclassmen advising, overstuffed housing, oversubscription of Sophomore College and overseas studies, and overflowing seminar classes. An action plan for reform must be implemented before additional strains can be placed on Stanford’s resources. Expansion is simply not a viable option without fixing the current problems. Oh yes, add the issue of increased financial aid to the equation.

Alumni visiting the Farm remark on how fortunate they are to have been accepted before this era of insane admission rates. It is difficult not to sympathize with the goal of allowing more talented students access to the Farm. However, Stanford’s first responsibility is to its current students and maintaining the high-class education it currently offers. Without addressing these challenges, expansion will detrimentally impact the Stanford experience.

Shelley Gao ’11 is a returning columnist focusing on University policies and campus issues. She looks forward to mobilizing a “keep Stanford small” movement if expansion is reconsidered.  Contact Shelley at [email protected].

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