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The size of the College

President Kington recently appointed a task force to prepare an analytical model to assess the impact of enrollment changes on multiple dimensions of the [C]ollege. In the faculty meeting in which he introduced the mission of the task force, Dean Latham noted that we seem to be unique among our peers in that we are smaller than any other free standing institution [1]. Interestingly, in addition to exploring a modest increase of 100 to 150 students and a more severe increase to a population of 2000 or 2500 students, the committee is also charged to explore a reduction to 1500 or so students [2].

Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to Grinnell, you know that we’re breaking ground on a new Humanities and Social Studies Complex (HSSC or husk). And so, when the task for was announced, I did what any sensible person would do, I asked something like the following: We’re about to build a huge building designed for our current student population. If we might be changing that population, shouldn’t we put a hold on until we work out our population plans? I clearly wasn’t alone in this concern. However, President Kington informed us that we were too far along on the HSSC to turn back now.

In the time since that meeting, I’ve heard a variety of interesting comments, including some from people who hadn’t heard that we’d appointed the task force. One of my favorite comments was (approximately): It should take less than an hour for a simple back of the envelope calculation. The dorm space alone should give us pause. East campus cost us approximately $100,000 per bed. Assuming maintenance and debt service of about 10% per year, we’d need to charge students $10,000 per year for housing, so we lose money on each room. And that doesn’t begin to count the other associated costs.

One person told me that they had heard some trustees make a comment on the order of there shouldn’t be too much of an impact if we add two hundred or so additional students. However, that statement is misguided. We either have to maintain the current student/faculty ratio, which would require either hiring another 22 or so faculty [3] or increasing our class sizes. But we can’t really increase our class sizes because most of our classrooms are designed for our current size of classes. Larger classes also affect students’ experiences at Grinnell [4]. I worry that some people don’t really understand these effects. But I’m sure that the task force will take them into account.

I’m not a fan of the rationale that everyone else does this or no one else does this as a reason to change. As I noted in my essay on the bookstore, Grinnell makes many decisions that our peers don’t necessarily make, from having cost-free events to the individually mentored curriculum to meeting the full demonstrated need of admitted domestic students.

Why are we looking at this issue right now? I have heard an interesting theory: The College and the town are partnering for a so-called zone of confluence downtown. But it’s not clear that such a zone could be supported by our town’s current population. Increasing the number of students (and, it seems, increasing the faculty and other support staff) might be one way to address that issue. But I find that theory hard to believe. I don’t think a few hundred people will make a huge difference to people taking advantage of resources in downtown Grinnell. So I hope that’s not the reason.

In the end, this task force seems to me like one of those painful aspects of higher education. Someone in power gets a bug in their ear that we need to do things differently. A quick analysis should reveal that it’s a bad idea. But instead of doing a quick analysis, we do a detailed analysis and come to the same conclusion (or, worse yet, we do the detailed analysis, come to the same conclusion, but go ahead anyway). Sometimes, as in this case, it’s something we’ve studied in the past, but we have insufficient institutional memory, and we do the work again (and again and again).

It’s pretty clear to me that when the task force has finished using lots of human resources to consider the issue, they will find that a larger college makes no financial sense, and that a larger institutional will make it more difficult for us to achieve our mission. I just wish that we had a better rationale for undertaking the study in the first place.

[1] If I understood it correctly, by free standing, he means that we don’t have a nearby partner institution or institutions. However, I could be wrong.

[2] Of course, there is a question of what it means when we say that we have 1650 students. As Jim Swartz has always said, when you ask about the number of students, you need to give parameters. Do you want only on-campus full-time students? Do you want to include the high-school students? The seniors who take classes? The faculty and staff who take classes? The students in our prison program? As best I understand it, we have about 1500 full-time students on campus, and about 1650 total full-time students, including students studying abroad.

[3] We would also have to find space for these new faculty. The last time I checked, there is essentially no free space in the Noyce Science Center. And, if the HSSC is built as planned, there won’t be room in that building, either.

[4] I say that as the person currently teaching the largest course in Spring 2017, and in a department whose classes are typically 50% over the average class size at the College.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-12-30.