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Would a Bigger Yale College Be Better?

Y: In our last issue, the magazine reported that you're appointing committees to explore building two new residential colleges. Why do you think Yale should have more undergraduates?

L: It’s not a new idea. Two new residential colleges were contemplated in the 1970s, when we had fewer than ten thousand applicants to Yale College. Today we have approximately twenty thousand. The competition for admission is fierce. We are missing the opportunity to educate a larger number of extraordinary people for leadership and service to society.

Y: I understand that at the end of the decision process every spring, the admissions committee has to do a final review to cut back on the number of students tentatively accepted, and it’s a painful process.

L: It is very painful. Over the weeks that cases are discussed and voted on, the admissions committee invariably votes to admit more students than we have room to accommodate. In the final review, as many as two hundred very worthy students are not offered places. So that’s one motivation—to increase the size of the class. A second is that our mission has expanded. When I became president, only 2 percent of our undergraduates came from outside the U.S. and Canada. That number is up to about 8 percent now and it will grow modestly in the years ahead. So we are drawing on a vast international talent pool at a time when the quality of the pool of American applicants is also improving.


How many students can we add without altering the character of Yale College?

We are very mindful of the unique quality of undergraduate life at Yale. Students feel part of a community. This is largely because the residential colleges create these wonderful small communities where people know one another by name and face. This makes a big place feel like a smaller place. One might think that this quality can be preserved because we will be creating two new colleges. But how many students can we add without altering the character of Yale College and its own sense of community? That's one of the questions we want the committees to test over the next year.

Y: Does the search for diversity raise the pressure to expand? And what kinds of diversity does the admissions office look for—socioeconomic, racial, gender, geographic? Mathematics, the arts, sports?

L: All of the above. Legacy applicants would be another consideration. Having an internationally representative class is another. There are so many competing attributes that we’re looking for in order to shape an outstanding class. With a larger student body there would be room to do more in all of these areas, but also to do more justice to the large number of students applying to Yale who are simply brilliant and well-rounded.

Y: Yale College is the third smallest in the Ivies. Is this another factor—that Yale has 5,500 undergraduates and Harvard and Stanford each have 6,500?

L: I don’t think there is any magic in being the size of Harvard. But there is an important collateral benefit of expansion—that we could add faculty. Size is relevant in judging the quality of arts and science faculties. So the opportunity to hire more distinguished scholars in fields where there will be substantial enrollment pressure—history, political science, economics, and English, among others—would not only deepen the educational resources of Yale College, it could also help improve the national standing of our departments and our graduate programs.

Y: But does bringing in more undergraduates bring in money to hire faculty?

L: The committees will look at this more closely, but, on the basis of preliminary evidence, the tuition revenue from adding two new colleges will probably cover only half the cost of building and operating these facilities and staffing teaching programs and support services. This is approximately the ratio that obtains today. So we’ll need to raise a lot of money, but I hear almost nothing but positive feedback from the alumni.

Y: They’re all hoping it will help their kids get in.

L: No doubt. Alumni have every reason to expect serious consideration of their children. We’ve talked about this before ["Why Yale Favors Its Own,” November/December 2004].

Y: Some college masters are concerned about overcrowding. Gary Haller of Jonathan Edwards College gives a rough estimate that it might take half to three-fourths of a new college to end overcrowding.

L: We’re studying that as well. We now have many students living in annex housing. Some of it is excellent, but there is some I would like to see disappear. My sense is we would reduce the enrollment of the existing colleges by somewhere between 100 and 200, and expand the overall enrollment in the range of 600 to 700. The committees will look at this carefully.

Y: If new Yale College students won’t raise income, what about down the line? Yale College alumni are the university’s largest source of fund-raising income. Could two new colleges be a long-term benefit to Yale’s economic health?

L: We haven’t quantified it but we certainly believe that’s true. If we take account of the support that Yale College alumni give back to the university, we might be making a pretty good investment. That’s not the reason to do this, but it is a secondary benefit. And expansion may also enhance the university’s reputation. If a larger body of successful, extraordinary people have a Yale College education, it has to be good for Yale. The current positive image that Yale enjoys is very much a consequence of people having positive experiences as students here.  the end


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