Balancing size vs. substance in Swat’s Strategic Planning

One of the most interesting, and potentially controversial, aspects of the Strategic Plan is the suggestion that Swarthmore slowly increase its student population by about 200 students over a span of many years. The increased revenue from students would allow for increased course offerings because more professors could be hired and provide for more student services and amenities as well.

Today, size is one of the defining characteristics of Swarthmore. When strangers ask where we go to school, Swatties are apt to answer the confusion of their interlocutors with a reference connecting Swarthmore’s small size to its lack of name recognition. Swarthmore’s size underlies our sense of community and determines our notion of good academics (small classes and interaction with professors). Swarthmore’s small size also probably underpinned your college search, as in “instead of going to an Ivy, I’d like to go to somewhere small like Swarthmore.”

This raises the question: if size is in some respect at the core of Swarthmore’s community, how much of an increase would dramatically change campus culture? One factor to consider in this question is past growth.

Although it may come as a surprise to some, Swarthmore has been growing. No, I don’t mean the endowment — though Swarthmore’s massive endowment growth will be the focus of another column piece. Instead, Swarthmore’s student population has crept up through the past 40 years, from a little over 1,100 students in 1970 to about 1,500 students today. Much of this slow growth took place before 2000, explaining why most students today are unaware of this change.

Despite the relatively gradual nature of this change, students were still affected, especially in terms of housing, according to a 1996 Phoenix article that complained of “lotteried classes, scarce silverware, and Grade D housing.” (From: http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/98/elizw/Swat.history/overcrowding.html). In fact, Swarthmore has gone through several cycles of expansion, including the years after World War II where GI’s returning from conflict led to a sustained bump in the student population.

Many campus dorms were built during these years of expansion. Mary Lyons was purchased in part to accommodate the surge in students in the wake of World War II, while plans for Willets began during this time, although the building itself was completed a little late, in 1958. The pattern of overcrowding that is eventually brought under control by a new dorm continued in the 1980’s, which prompted the building of Mertz, while the latest crowding wave, in 1996, led to the construction of Alice Paul and David Kemp.

In light of new plans for further growth, the persistence of this trend of an expanding student body which is only later followed by an expansion in housing options is disturbing. At a school as expensive as Swarthmore, students deserve not to be packed into dorms. This means that instead of expanding first and breaking ground on a new dorm later, new housing areas should be secured before extra students are admitted for the freshman class. Although this means that a new dorm might have to be financed a few years before Swarthmore receives the tuition benefits of those extra students, Swarthmore’s record endowment or an alumni giving campaign could and should handle this essential preparation for growth.

Of course, expansion in the student body affects more than just housing options. Aside from the obvious — more people in Sharples at lunch won’t only be a disaster, but it won’t be very fun either — the main benefit to expansion must be the increase in professors and course options. To maintain our prized student to faculty ratio (and our rankings among liberal arts colleges) an increase of 200 students would indicate that about 25 additional professors to be hired. Obviously, 25 new professors would lead to many new and exciting courses.

Fascinatingly, as pointed out in Strategic Directions, Swarthmore is actually one of the smallest of our peer institutions, a group that includes Amherst, Middlebury, Wesleyan and Williams. The opportunity for growth, done right, could create a Swarthmore with new options for classes and for housing. What is not likely is for Swarthmore to grow too much — for the community to be unrecognizable to former students. This would probably require growth over 2,000 students — not something likely to happen any time soon. What is possible is for Swarthmore to grow before it has prepared for that growth.

Steven is a sophomore. You can reach him at shazel1@swarthmore.edu.

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