RPC report suggests impacts of expanded student body

By Maya Pisel

Macalester’s Resource and Planning Committee (RPC) presented a new report at the faculty meeting on Tuesday in which they cautioned against moving too quickly to increase the size of the Macalester student body in the next few years. At the faculty meeting Tuesday, the Resource and Planning Committee (RPC) presented their findings on the impact of a larger student body size. The findings were published in a report titled “Macalester 2,000?” that was formally submitted in December and released to the community on February 26 on the Provost’s website.

The RPC includes six elected faculty members, three elected staff members, two students appointed through student government, and several non-voting members. Its role is to advise the president on issues surrounding financial planning, faculty work conditions and other planning issues.

The RPC’s focal question was “What would Macalester look like, and have to change, if it increased the student body size to 2,000 average annual full-time equivalent students on a long-term basis?”

The report, which is about 40 pages with a 20-page index, is structured categorically. The first two pages summarize the issue at hand and the RPC’s findings. The next thirty give a detailed description of the effects of a larger student body size in six core areas: Student Employment, Organizations, Programs and Services, Academic Programs, Admissions, Net Tuition Revenue, Physical Space, and the overall “Macalester Experience.”

Because of the many positive, negative, and ambiguous impacts of a larger student body size throughout these core areas, “the conclusion of the report is that it would be premature to make any specific recommendation,” said Erik Larson, sociology professor and co-chair of the RPC.

“We do not recommend any change to the long-term target number of students at this time; rather, we provide a basis for strategic planning for a process of making such a decision. the College should plan for the possibility of future permanent growth,” the report says.

Moreover, the report is “not just about what does growing mean, [it’s] also about what is happening now,” Larson said.

“We had to take account of current and emerging issues,” Larson said, and ask the holistic question “What is it like to be a student here?”

In the process, “all of us on RPC learned a lot about how Macalester works,” Larson said.

This comprehensive view was fostered by the diverse make-up of the committee. “Faculty are not often on committees where there are also students and staff,” Karin Aguilar-San Juan, American studies professor and RPC co-chair, said.

“Unsurprisingly, as students, different things catch our attention and our short-term priorities are not always the same as those of faculty or staff,” David Suchy ’12, student member of the RPC, said. “The goal is to combine those differences to reveal the full picture.”

The section on “The Macalester Experience” addresses the impact a larger student body size could have on students’ personal connections, relationships, and feelings. More students could decrease the frequency or quality of personal student-faculty interaction, and a smaller percentage of the student body would be able to participate in student-faculty research projects. More students living off-campus could hamper the sense of community that results from cohabitation, the report says.

Moreover, the report touches on existing challenges like a lack of campus traditions, students feeling disenfranchised from administrative decisions, and “silos,” or divisions between types of students and aspects of campus life.

Yet a larger campus might or might not exacerbate those challenges, Larson said. “It’s not going necessarily going to be better or worse.”

“The idea of silos came from our discussion with the students on the committee. [They presented the] notion that whether we’re larger or smaller we’d like to be more connected all around,” Aguilar-San Juan said.

The report explains that student organizations, programs and services would face new organizational and administrative challenges if they had to include significantly more students. Programs that focus on individual students, like those in the Department of Multicultural Life, Student Affairs, the Internship Office and the Health and Wellness Center, would be particularly strained with a larger student body.

However, the Athletic Department could benefit from more students both as team members and spectators.

More work-study positions would need to be created to fulfill the work-study awards of a larger student body. Macalester funds over three-quarters of work-study positions, and the additional jobs would likely cost the college about $300,000. Although there might be increased demand for student workers, it is also possible that there would not be enough jobs for students and students would not be able to earn their full award.

If the student body increased, more professors would need to be hired and more courses would need to be offered. This problem is particularly acute since many classes and departments are already at the margins of capacity. Fall semester, the average class size at Macalester was 17.5; however, the study suggests that the average experienced class size was 22.4. In contrast, a 2009 study of first-year students found that the average preferred class size was 16. Overall, the RPC was able to estimate that, if the student body increased to 2,000, Macalester would need to hire 10-15 additionally faculty at a cost of $650,000-$1.7 million.

While a few departments, including the music department, welcomed more majors to their department, most departments expressed concern at the prospect of more students. More students, and thus more majors taking more sections of required courses, could diminish elective offerings and hamper departments’ ability to serve non-majors or participate in interdisciplinary programs.

Larson said that the report “matches fairly well with other discussions we’ve had at faculty meetings this year concerning curriculum development.”

“The report includes a large amount of detailed information that allows more informed deliberation,” Larson said.

An increased target size for the student body would have also have ramifications on the Admissions department. To maintain a larger student body, Macalester would need to attract, admit, and/or yield more students. Attracting more students would be hard because the number of college-age youth in the US, particularly in the Midwest, is declining. By admitting more students, the report suggests, Macalester might sacrifice the quality of its admitted students and/or its perceived prestige. If the yield remains as high as it was last year, Macalester may not have much difficulty increasing student body size without sacrificing quality. If, however, yield returns to its prior level, the college will need to readjust how many students it offers admission.

Whether increasing the student body generates additional revenue for Macalester would depend on the financial profiles of the students. This year, net tuition revenue decreased by approximately $1,700 per domestic first-year student.

Net tuition revenue particularly decreased in the $45,000 to $90,000 family income band; students from those families paid less tuition than they had in previous years.

Yet, despite the pull on college resources from mid-range family incomes, yield was actually higher for more affluent students. While yield for students with family incomes less than $90,000 remained comparable to previous years, “Macalester experienced substantial increases in yield rates for students from families in the $90,000 – $180,000 annual income range. The yield rate at the lower end of this range was nearly one-third higher than typical of recent years; the yield rate at the top end of this range was about one-and-a-half times higher than typical of recent years,” the report says.
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br>If yield continued to be strong in such groups, net revenue might not fall, and actually could increase. But finding the balance would require careful management of the financial aid budget.

An increased student body size would also cramp student dining, student residence and faculty office space. Although the report does not anticipate problems with classroom availability, more classes would likely need to be taught at less popular times. In addition, many classrooms would not be able to serve larger class sizes, so if class sizes were to increase there could be a scramble for the larger classrooms.

80-85 more residence beds would need to be installed, or more students would have to be allowed to live off-campus.

When everything is taken into account, it is difficult to judge how or if the benefits of a Macalester experience could be extended to more students without reducing the quality of that experience. “We maintain that any strategy of growth should not imperil the core mission of Macalester,” the report says.

Larson also emphasized the importance of intentionality and thoughtfulness if the college decides to grow. “Making a premature decision to grow could be risky,” Larson said.

Larson feels that Brian Rosenberg, who ultimately makes the decision about student body size, “very clearly sees the message in the report that there may be potential benefits.however there are [also] significant costs to preserve and enhance the quality of students’ Macalester experience at a larger student body size.