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Is MIT really going to increase the undergraduate class size? MIT isn’t sure when or how much, but some sort of increase looks likely.

MIT’s Institute Planning Task Force has suggested that MIT can accommodate a small increase in undergraduates without raising the total cost to educate the undergraduate body, and without compromising MIT’s academic excellence. An increase of 10 percent would generate $4M in additional revenue, the Task Force preliminary report noted.

The costs of an increase need to be considered as well. Vice Chancellor Steven R. Lerman ’72 points out extra classrooms for already-full freshman General Institute Requirement classes, like 8.02 TEAL, would cost money and could offset revenue.

But increasing the number of undergraduates may not simply be increasing the freshman class size.

Lerman suggests three other approaches that might be more likely: increasing the number of transfer students; implementing a “3+2” program to grant a five-year bachelor’s degree to students who have attended three years at another institution and two years at MIT; or a “3+2” program that grants a master’s degree.

According to Lerman, adding more freshmen does not seem to be the best option for GIR classes near their capacities. The ability of especially the math and science GIRs to physically accept an increase in students proves to be problematic.

When MIT accepts a freshman, that student can choose to major in any department. MIT can be selective in the transfer and 3+2 students it admits, Lerman says. By choosing to admit such students into departments with unused capacity, MIT can more efficiently utilize its existing resources.

Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings ’78 said such an approach could “admit students in targeted ways, in areas where they do not go through the GIRs, skipping bottlenecks, and into areas where there is actual capacity.

Hastings said that “on average, the amount to educate a [undergraduate] student here exceeds the tuition by some factor between 1.8–2.3,” but if care is taken in adding students the number of students can be increased without increasing that cost.

Lerman Favors 3+2 Program

In the proposed 3+2 program, a student could attend three years of their undergraduate career at a liberal arts school, and then move to MIT for two years, earning either two bachelors degrees (one from each institution) or a bachelors (from the “home” institution) and a masters degree (from MIT).

According to Lerman, there are significant issues with the 3+2 bachelors program.

Most notably, families may not be willing to pay for five years of tuition in this economy, and there is also the question of whether these students are getting the full undergraduate experience to earn an MIT bachelor degree. Lerman mentions that, although there is such a program in place between Wellesley College and MIT, the program is not currently in use.

Nonetheless, Lerman says, “currently all options are being talked about by the Task Force,” but described the 3+2 program masters program as his personal “favorite.”

Class Size Issues Nothing New

Accommodating these added students is also an concerning issue. Paul E. Gray ’54, Professor of Electrical Engineering and MIT President Emeritus, also faced budget cuts during his presidency (1980–1990), and opted to forgo adding more undergraduates for fear of exacerbating the housing situation.

We should not increase class size if it entails “doubles becoming triples and triples becoming quads,” Gray said.

According to Lerman, current housing options include “empty beds within the FSILG system” or “waiting for W1 to be finished.”

The former could be problematic since some fraternities generate revenue by housing boarders, Lerman said. Also, 3+2 masters students could be treated as graduate students and thus housed outside the undergraduate housing system.

Gray said that; without access to another dormitory, a renovated Ashdown house, or more independent living groups; accommodating an increased class size would be difficult, to say the least.

MIT’s Mission Matters

Despite its limitations, Hastings said the most pressing argument to increase undergraduate student body size is “to educate more scientists and engineers for America.”

Lerman agrees: “If there was a way to create more people educated at MIT it would be good for the country.”

Professor W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80, co-chair of the Academic Education team of the Task Force, said, “a careful model of the impact of each suggestion needs to be developed and examined” through further study before MIT can say for sure that it will see a flutter of new freshman on campus.

The task force’s report is expected on Oct. 30.

According to Lerman, changes could be made for the incoming class in fall 2011 “if a solution for housing arises.”

As of now, there is no fixed plan in place.

Ana Lyons and John A. Hawkinson contributed reporting to this article.