Should Stanford Expand the Freshman Class?

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Every March, as our admission dean and his staff pore over applications during the last phase of the admission process, tension hangs over Montag Hall. Once the final decisions are made, there is a sense of relief and accomplishment from a job well done. That is followed quickly by a feeling of remorse because so many exceptional and deserving students cannot be offered a place in Stanford’s freshman class.

I have been president for seven years and it is still one of the most difficult parts of the job to explain to parents with gifted children why a son or daughter was denied admission. And at the same time, I must come to terms with the fact that we are denying Stanford the benefit of talent that could contribute to the University and society at large in a significant way.

In recent months this has led me to a crossroads: I believe it is time to begin a conversation among alumni, faculty, students, trustees and admission personnel about whether we need to consider slightly expanding the size of the freshman class—and as a consequence, the overall undergraduate population.

My primary rationale for asking this question is the dramatic growth in the number of applicants—a significant fraction of whom are prepared to do Stanford-caliber study. Stanford, like many universities, is experiencing a record number of applicants. For the Class of 2011, we received nearly 24,000 applications—the most ever. Our acceptance rate was 10.3 percent—which we believe to be a record as well, albeit a record low. By comparison, for the class enrolling in 1970, we received 9,800 applications and accepted 22.4 percent.

As the number of applicants continues to increase, the quality of the students who apply also has risen, although more slowly than the total number of applicants. Test scores and grade-point averages are higher than ever; remarkable personal achievements, impressive contributions to the community and amazing creative accomplishments are now the norm. To cite one example: the percentage of applicants scoring the equivalent of a 700 on the SAT (adjusting for a recentering that happened in the 1990s) has increased by a factor of 1.12 for the verbal exam and a factor of 2.3 for the math exam.

Amid this rising tide of achievement, the size of our undergraduate population has remained nearly level for more than 35 years. In 1970, the undergraduate class size was 6,221; in 1980 it was 6,630; last year it was 6,689.

As persuasive an argument as this might make for increasing the size of the freshman class, it is important that this issue not be reduced to simply a numbers game. At its core, the Stanford experience is about the quality of the interactions in which students and faculty engage. This experience—both in the classroom and the research lab—must always be driven by human interactions between students and faculty. This works best in a relatively intimate setting, and Stanford must never lose its dedication to that principle.

Nonetheless, as we pursue a more global outlook as an institution, more students means more occasions for interaction and very well could offer the opportunity to broaden the perspectives and experiences of the student body as a whole.

This is not a conversation to be undertaken lightly. To be certain, expanding the size of the undergraduate student body even slightly would have consequences—educational, social and financial. How would we ensure that we maintain the small classes and seminars for undergraduates? Where would the resources come from to maintain the faculty-to-student ratio? Where would we house the additional students and how would we finance new housing? How would we provide the additional financial aid to ensure that Stanford remains need-blind?

In the end, though, I believe expanding the size of the undergraduate population would be both a practical and principled response to current realities. It would create more opportunities for gifted students to attend Stanford and it would avail Stanford of some of the best and brightest minds in the country. As I said earlier, however, this is the beginning of a conversation—a conversation that must engage all Stanford stakeholders, present and future.

When the cornerstone for this University was laid more than a century ago, Leland Stanford noted: “It has several times been suggested to us that there was a limit to the beneficence of education—but we have thought differently.” As the inheritors of the Stanfords’ legacy, we should be prepared to think beyond the limits that have constrained us and ask how we might enlarge our role in educating young people who will become leaders in this new century.