How big is big enough? (page 3)

classroom, Stroud said, and how they'll fit into the college community.

And he's confident that the process is working.

"Strategic efforts to systematically grow enrollment will not change our fundamental mission regarding student recruitment.  Ultimately our enrollment success depends on our ability to attract and to retain students who are a strong fit academically and personally with the Cornell College community.  We're looking for students who will thrive here and contribute to the vitality of campus life," Stroud observed.

There's more to growth than just admitting more students, of course. For one, there are facilities bottlenecks on campus that limit how many students can be at Cornell right now.
The first limit is the most basic requirement—a place for them to sleep.

For the 2010–11 academic year, residence halls were running at 98 percent capacity, said John Harp, vice president for student affairs. About 110 students live off campus. Half of those are seniors and the other half are 23 or older, married, live with their families near campus or have children.

But there's not much more room for seniors to live off campus in Mount Vernon. There have never been many apartments available around town, so their options are limited. This year, there were 1,074 students on campus and 1,093 beds. That leaves an average of 1.5 beds open in each residence hall to move people to in case of illness, conflict or some other reason. That makes moving people challenging, Harp said, and it would be compounded if the college moves to 100 percent capacity.

To that end, the college is offering a new option on a trial basis this year; 14 students will live in a wing of the Sleep Inn in Mount Vernon next year. The hotel had more rooms than it could fill on a regular basis, and the arrangement will allow the college to grow a little while planning for further facilities upgrades, Brown said.

The students who'll live there are juniors and seniors, and they will share seven double rooms with queen-size beds. An eighth room will serve as a common area and kitchen, and the wing where students live will be behind a locked door that only they'll be able to access.

If it works, there's the possibility of housing more students there in the future, Brown said.
Moving forward, there are a few options for finding more housing, he said. One option is the traditional route—building a residence hall. Another is having the college work with developers, either to build apartments near campus that would be attractive to students or to contract with them to build student housing as an investment. The final option is finding more partnerships like the one with the Sleep Inn, which allow students a mix of traditional residence life—an RA, a meal plan, roommates—and non-traditional experiences.

Programs like the Sleep Inn are key to growing, Mercer said, because the college can't build a new dorm or work with a developer to build apartments until there are enough students to fill them. So as the college continues to grow, partnerships to develop non-traditional living spaces for students are important.

Moving beyond facilities bottlenecks

Once the students are here, they need something to do—they don't spend every waking moment studying, after all. And that's where the Department of Student Affairs helps with both recruiting new students and retaining ones who are already on campus.

The perception of the quality of student life has an enormous impact on whether students decide to attend or not, Harp said. One of the most effective recruitment tools is to have prospective students interact with current students.

To ensure the quality of life remains high, the college has placed a high priority on improving the Thomas Commons. Built in 1966, The Commons has been largely unchanged in 45 years, and is already hard-pressed to handle the needs of a student body with 250 more members than when it opened (see related story).

Then there's the problem of feeding a hundred or more new students. Part of the plan for the Thomas Commons will include improved food service facilities, Brown said. The main cafeteria is congested already, and part of that has to do with both the layout and the fact that the food is cooked on the lower level and brought up through two small elevators to the top floor.

And students today have different expectations than students of the '60s, Brown said, so making sure the Thomas Commons meets their needs is a key aspect to recruiting. After all, nearly every student passes through the building nearly every day and they eat an average of 800 meals a year there.

The facilities bottlenecks don't just affect student life, though. Limited space in the science and fine arts buildings need to be addressed before enrollment can surpass about 1,300 students, said Joe Dieker, dean of the college.

One of the advantages of the move to eight blocks from nine is that it will allow more classes each block, Dieker said, which allows the college to increase enrollment even as it plans for future needs. The switch to eight blocks, which will start during the 2012-13 academic year, means the college can start to increase enrollment without having to hire as many new faculty members, Dieker said. "An eight-block year lets us be more flexible and still retain our character," he said.

But there are challenges, as well. More classes each block means more classrooms being used. And that puts pressure on buildings that are already nearly full.

The college is working to expand a basement classroom in West Science, Mercer said, as well as renovating some classrooms in Norton Geology Center. And more classrooms are getting projectors, computers, and other technology, which gives the college flexibility about where classes can take place. And additional classrooms in the Thomas Commons are another piece of that puzzle, Mercer said.

Once The Commons project is finished, she said, the next step has to be renovating West Science. Many students are attracted to Cornell because of programs like Dimensions, which are grounded in the sciences, she said.

Academic quality remains priority

Academic rigor is key to recruiting good students, and Dieker said the college plans to build on its recent successes. The faculty adopted revisions to the graduation requirements that would allow more flexibility and make sure students have an interdisciplinary focus. The economics and business department has proposed a business minor. There will be more changes to the curriculum, he said, but one thing won't change—Cornell's commitment to the liberal arts.

One program that has already benefited from becoming more interdisciplinary, he said, is the environmental studies program. Because of a $300,000 grant, faculty have been able to develop new classes in the Boundary Waters, the Bahamas, and South America. Biology, anthropology, English classes and more go at the same time, and meet daily to share information. That ensures a healthy cross-pollination between the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, he said.

The difficult part about growing is making sure that what's made Cornell so special—connections between faculty and students, whether as teachers, advisors or researchers—doesn't go away.

In a document laying out the guiding principles for growth at Cornell (see below), one of the points is that the student/faculty ratio will remain less than 15:1.

The key to that, Brown said, is to make sure Cornell recruits and gives tenure to the right faculty, ones who are committed to undergraduate teaching, who understand how to balance their own scholarly and creative work with the work of teaching and advising students. Part of the key to retention, he said, is the emotional bond formed between students and faculty.

"We can't have that connection go away," he said. "It makes a huge impact on the student experience."

Guiding principles

As Cornell's administration and faculty prepare for increasing enrollment, they created a list of principles to guide the process. Here are some of those principles.

  • Continue to value our One Course At A Time calendar
  • Support a culture of strong student-faculty interaction and maintain a student-faculty ratio of less than 15:1
  • Offer a diversity of quality co-curricular programs appropriate for an evolving student population
  • Continue to be a nationally recognized residential liberal arts college
  • Enroll academically qualified students whose backgrounds, talents, and interests would contribute to a vital campus culture
  • Strive to attract and retain diverse and highly qualified faculty, administrators, and staff who will engage in a student-centered education experience

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