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W1, which will house at least 460 undergraduates, is the cornerstone of MIT’s long-term plans to increase enrollment by 300 students.
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For years, MIT has dreamed of increasing the number of undergraduates back to 4,500. That dream is still distant. Adding about 300 students means adding support staff, adding more sections of the General Institute Requirements and finding a place for all the students to stay. Adding students means finishing the renovation of the undergraduate dormitory W1, and untold other costs.

“We’re not ready to increase the student body size,” Chancellor Philip Clay said. “We haven’t systematically explored the questions yet.”

Though the Institute Task Force suggested increasing enrollment as a way for MIT to make more money, MIT might actually lose money by admitting more students, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Stuart Schmill ’86 said. Administrators say that the real reason they want to add students is to give more students a chance at an MIT education.

“Report after report from the government [says] the country needs to produce more engineers,” Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80 said. “In service to the nation and the world, we’d like to educate more students,” Schmill said.

W1 renovation is key

Before class size can increase in a significant way, MIT must find a place to put the students. MIT’s undergraduate dorms are operating near capacity, with many forced triples and quads. W1, which planners say will house at least 460 students, must be finished in order for MIT to start accepting more freshmen.

It is not clear when W1 will be finished, or even if there will be money to finish it. Budget problems are holding the project back. “It’s all about the funds available to complete,” said Sonia Richards, the project manager for the W1 renovation. A large, anonymous donation is helping to fund this stage of the construction.

Because of a lack of clear plans and budget, there is no current indication of when the construction at W1 will be completed, though it will not be in the near future.

“It is very difficult for us to commit to any time frame,” Richards said. Currently, workers are repairing the exterior of the building. They plan to finish in January 2010, at which point they will begin interior demolition. That phase is scheduled through March 2010. Richards said there are no plans past next March.

Some preliminary plans have been confirmed. Richards said the dorm will have a dining facility. In planning the building, the historical aspect of Ashdown was kept in mind. “We are attempting to maintain the historical components in the building. That was one of our number one goals during the design of the project,” said Richards.

GIRs are bottlenecks

More freshmen also means more-crowded freshman classes. Already, classes like 7.012 and 3.091 are so big that the students cannot all fit into one lecture hall. Lectures have to be broadcast to overflow classrooms.

The Technology Enabled Active Learning courses, 8.01 (Physics I) and 8.02 (Physics II), are particularly hard to scale up. Both 8.01 and 8.02 are operating near maximum capacity. Peter A. Dourmashkin ’76, one of the developers of TEAL and a current 8.01 instructor, said that the issue isn’t as simple as space — adding more students goes “all the way around: more work, more students, more time.” In TEAL, the rooms are already almost at capacity, and ideally, they would be under capacity so that students can get more personal attention. Dourmashkin added that the problem “isn’t black or white.” MIT has to balance the national demand for more scientists and engineers with the difficulties of adding undergraduates. “I think [increasing class size] is worth it in terms of rewards across the large picture,” said Dourmashkin.

Transfers may increase

One way to increase enrollment without putting as much pressure on housing and the GIRs is to admit transfer students, who could live off-campus and may have passed out of most GIRs. MIT might also admit more transfer students of a particular major to fill departments that are operating under capacity.

But it is not clear that MIT has enough transfer applicants to pad out undergraduate enrollment. “A careful examination of the pool of transfer students needs to occur,” Schmill said. Every year, a couple hundred apply for transfer admissions, and about six percent, or 20 students, are admitted. If MIT were to suddenly decide to accept 50 or 100 transfers, it might not be able to find enough qualified students. Schmill said that the transfer students MIT currently takes are extremely talented, and that additional transfers would have to be just as talented.

Schmill said MIT might need to start recruiting transfer students in order to adequately increase class size.

Net cost of students unknown

MIT is not increasing undergraduate enrollment for the money, Schmill said. At this point, it is not even clear if MIT will make or lose money by admitting more students. More students means more tuition, but also more costs, to educate and house them. Because of need-blind admissions and MIT’s commitment to meeting all demonstrated need for admitted students, it is difficult to estimate whether there will be a net gain or loss of revenue from the addition of students. “Whether costs overwhelm tuition revenue, we don’t know at this point,” Schmill said.

MIT once had 4,500 undergraduates, when many freshmen lived at fraternities. MIT stopped that practice after a freshman died of alcohol intoxication in 1997. In order to fit the entire freshman class in the dormitories, MIT started admitting fewer freshmen.

Hastings says that the fact that MIT has successfully educated 4,500 undergraduates in the past indicates that it can happen again. “No one believes that the quality of our education then was somehow worse than now,” says Hastings. “The historical evidence is that we can teach 4,500 students and we can do it well.”

In the end, Schmill believes that despite the obstacles, increasing MIT’s student body will have a positive impact on campus. “There is an obvious advantage if you get more talented students — potential for student organizations, sports teams, music, classes … the campus would benefit in a really big way,” said Schmill. With any increase, however, there are risks that must be carefully evaluated, said Schmill, adding, “We want to make sure any sort of increase in undergraduate student body size wouldn’t have a negative impact on the educational experience”. Hastings also says that any increases that happen should not come at the cost of educational quality, but “the assumption is that the current size is optimal. The current size is what people know. There’s no evidence that the current size is optimal.”