Opinion » Column | Oct. 16
In the wake of the announcement that a committee was being created to review grade deflation, another presidential proposal — that of expanding the undergraduate student body — was largely overshadowed in campus discussion. As a possible means of enlarging the University, President Eisgruber ’83 floated the idea of adding a seventh residential college or expanding Forbes College, currently the University’s smallest. Such an expansion, in either form, would be detrimental to both the student body and to the image of Princeton in comparison with its peer institutions.
I went to a high school that had for more than 360 years prioritized and treasured its small size, and by the time I graduated, I had for six years personally felt the practical and tangible benefits of such an education. The most obvious of these is that classes were kept very small (before ECO 100, the largest class I’d been in since middle school was 20 people).
Maintaining a small school matters because students become more invested in their own education. Even for no other reason than the simple fact that you’re very likely to be called on, you want to come to class prepared. Professors can more effectively teach classes, as they have a better sense of how well each student understands the subject. And everyone is more engaged in a class in which the professor and the students enrolled in the course know each other on at least a somewhat personal level.
Furthermore, the abstract conception of a small school building as a “community environment” does in fact mean something. Statistically, in a small school you are more likely to run into people you know, acquaintances become friends more quickly and you can rarely be somewhere without being among friends. You are more likely to have more in common with the friends you make, because you are in each others’ classes, you participate in the same clubs and you go through parallel struggles and experiences.
I bought this premise wholly and knew when I applied to college that on some level I wanted to continue to benefit from small classes and a strong school community. Obviously even the smallest liberal arts college would be significantly larger than most high schools, but I didn’t want to suddenly become one of 10,000 freshmen. One of the chief reasons I chose to apply to Princeton, and eventually chose to come, was precisely because of its comparatively small size. The absence of most professional schools measurably puts the emphasis on the undergraduate experience in terms of endowment per student, class sizes and classes taught by professors. And the residential college system breaks the class of 1,300 into groups of about 200 people you’re most likely to see day-to-day and get to know fairly quickly. Preserving all of these goods that are unique to smaller schools should be a key priority, and as such expanding the undergraduate student body seems rather misinformed.
One obvious point is that the proposed increase in the student body would be marginal, not radical, and that any effects of dilution or increased anonymity would be minimal. The last expansion after the addition of Whitman College, for example, was only around a 10 percent increase, and the sky didn’t fall down. Class sizes didn’t suddenly balloon. The world didn’t end. But I believe that repeated marginal changes such as these to the student body will in the aggregate make a significant and harmful difference. I believe the current student population is of the right size: Big enough that a wide array of classes and activities can be offered and that you are always meeting new people, but small enough that you aren’t usually one of 450 in a class and that you always see your core group of friends. And while I don’t believe the number 5,200 is some objective standard for the perfect size of a university, I think the current size of Princeton makes sense. Slowly pushing this number higher and higher without a well-justified and case-by-case reason, however, does not. Gradually expanding, while at each step may lessen the initial shock of massive increases, in the long run leaves the same effect. If every 10 years, Princeton adds 150 more students, for example, no one expansion would feel drastic, and in fact each would feel proportionally less so than the last. But over the long-term life of the school, it would radically increase the student body. Perhaps no single increase would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but looking back years later, the quality and character of the University would be unrecognizable.
By decreasing the simple likelihood of running into a given person, you make everyone feel that much more anonymous, that much less known in a place that is supposedly their home. Clubs become more competitive, and classes either increase in size or become harder to get into. This is not a goal that the Princeton administration should be striving toward. Princeton is a small university in a small town. It is designed on some level to feel like home; that is a characteristic not many schools can achieve and is a fragile one that shouldn’t be tampered with.
Ryan Dukeman is a freshman from Westwood, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.