Official Miami seems ecstatic about our record enrollment this fall.
Judging by the major effort to build new residence halls, this may not be a temporary blip but, instead, may reflect a furtive plan to substantially and permanently increase the size of the student body: Three new dorms on Western Campus, one new dorm on Maple Street, a new dorm on the Withrow Court site, one new dorm on North Quad, and conversion of the Miami Inn into a dorm. Somebody, somewhere has decided that a major expansion of dorm capacity is needed to house a permanently major increase in the number of students.
The benefits of increased enrollment are obvious: More dollars from more tuition, more fees, and more room and board charges collected from more students.
But economics teaches that the costs of a decision have to be weighed against the benefits. In this case the costs are substantial, involving not only dollars and cents but, more fundamentally, the potentially corrosive effect on the character and quality of Miami as a unique undergraduate institution.
The dollar-and-cents costs are considerable: They include not only the millions of dollars in interest expense paid to borrow funds to build new residence halls, but the permanently increased operating costs incurred in cleaning, maintaining, repairing, and staffing them. The interest payments end, but increased operating costs permanently inflate Miami’s expenses.
In addition, if the quality of undergraduate teaching is not to suffer, there is the additional cost to hire more faculty to teach more students — again, permanently inflating University expenses. And if they are to be accessible to students, there will be the further costs of creating additional office space for more faculty. However, if the faculty isn’t increased in line with increased enrollment, then quality will suffer as class sizes grow, as meaningful student-faculty interaction in them diminishes, and as classes close quicker making it harder for students to enroll in courses they need to graduate.
Another potentially costly problem is the growing lack of sufficient classrooms needed to teach more classes to more students — especially as the Armstrong Center occupies former classroom space in the buildings it has absorbed. Is Miami going to build new classrooms to keep pace with increased enrollments? If so, that will inflate costs too.
Transcending dollars and cents, and more disturbing, is the erosion of the unique character of Miami as our enrollment climbs. Consider outstanding undergraduate universities like Wake Forest, William and Mary, or Dartmouth: Would they substantially increase their enrollment to boost their revenues? Or would they be more concerned that significantly increasing size would erode their essential character? Would they tell us that as “new Miami” gets bigger, the challenge of sustaining the best of “old Miami” gets harder as the institution drifts into becoming just another less-distinct, medium-sized state college? Would they understand that increasingly-dubious rankings based on past performance may only mask this slide (while making a mockery of our “prodesse quam conspici” motto)? And would they have the wisdom to solicit input from their major stakeholders (including faculty and current students) before embarking on a course fraught with such peril?
James Brock, professor of Economics