On the Campus - April 18, 2000

Growing concern over a growing student body
The Wythes Report forces undergraduates to consider what makes Princeton Princeton

by Andrew Shtulman '01

In the mid-18th century, the Princeton student body averaged 70 undergraduates. Today, it averages 4,600. It's hard to imagine what Princeton would be like if the student body had never grown past 70. Yet it's equally hard to imagine what Princeton will be like if the student body continues to grow in the future. Would an increase in quantity continue to improve quality? Or has Princeton's potential already been maximized?

These are the questions students are asking in the wake of the Wythes Committee Report, the Board of Trustees' recent assessment of the university's long-term strategic issues. From a student perspective, the report's most salient feature is a recommendation to increase the size of the student body by 10 percent, which would add approximately 125 undergraduates to each class. The report offers three main reasons: It will increase both ethnic and extracurricular diversity; it will keep the student body in scale with academic growth; and it will uphold Princeton's obligation "to make the greatest possible use of its exceptional resources for the benefit of higher education and of society."

Not everyone agrees that these reasons are valid. Undergraduate Student Government Student Groups Liaison Aime Scott '01 notes that Princeton's low percentage of minority students has more to do with matriculation rates than acceptance rates. "If the trustees want to increase diversity, they're going to have to put a lot of programs in place to attract minority students," she says. "Already a large number are applying and are accepted, but they're not matriculating." In terms of extracurricular diversity, Scott believes that an increase in student body size could help improve the status of the performing arts. Since the number of sports recruits would stay constant, the extra 125 students in each class would most likely bring a greater depth of artistic talent to campus. However, Scott is wary that if structural changes are not made to accommodate the increase in size and/or number of performance groups, competition for performance space could become cutthroat. "Performance groups are having a difficult time finding space now," she argues.

As for academics, President Shapiro has assured students that the student-to-faculty ratio will not increase because the faculty will increase along with the student body. Yet as USG Academics Chair Jeff Gelfand '01 explains, concern over the size increase "is not just about the numbers; it's not just about the student-to-faculty ratio. It's about the quality of instruction students are getting in the classroom. That's why we came to Princeton in the first place." Though the size of precepts might not change, it is unclear whether the quality of instruction will also remain constant.

Princeton may have the monetary and faculty resources to expand, but not the physical capacity-at least not yet. Plans to build a sixth residential college are in the works, though the site remains undetermined.

Some would argue that Princeton does not actually have the resources to expand and is thus under no obligation to increase its size to benefit society, the third reason. Indeed, the committee concedes that it is willing to extend the benefits of a Princeton education to more students if, and only if, this goal can be accomplished "within the parameters of Princeton's resources and without significantly changing the Princeton experience."

But what exactly constitutes the "Princeton experience?" Is the fact that many students claim Princeton's size was a factor in their decision to matriculate indicative of what defines the university? Daily Princetonian columnist Alex Rawson '01 thinks so. "Yes, Princeton is a competitive institution and must seek to match its peers in many respects," he wrote, "but one of Princeton's hallmarks is its small size, and many would argue that to have fewer students is a distinct advantage."

Does this advantage outweigh the advantages proposed by the Wythes Committee? If not, is there any incentive for keeping the university small? Indeed, the Princeton experience is difficult to conceptualize in terms of numbers alone. After all, by the time 500 students are added, those students who are now questioning the recommendation will be long graduated and those students who will have benefited from the recommendation will never have known the difference. Whether the number of students is 70, 4,600, or 5,100, Princeton is still Princeton to at least some degree.

Andrew Shtulman can be reached at shtulman@princeton.edu.


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