By Emily Blackner
Elm Staff Writer
This year’s entering group of freshmen was the biggest in Washington College’s long history, with 448 students. The college continues to attract record numbers of students, and this growth provides opportunities for many positive changes on campus.
“I’ve had high school counselors tell me that WC has become a ‘hot’ school,” said Kevin Coveney, Vice President for Admissions and Enrollment Management. “Typically, that translates into more applications and that is certainly the case this year! At this point, applications are up by 70 percent and I expect that we’ll receive over 400 more applications for the 2011 entering class than we did for the 2010 entering class.”
There are several factors accounting for this surge in WC’s popularity. This year, WC climbed 19 spaces higher in the “U.S. News and World Report” rankings, which certainly put the college on parents’ and students’ radar. Coveney also cited other reasons. “I think we’ve been more effective in helping prospective students recognize all that WC has to offer and understand why we might be a good fit for them.”
Even amidst this growth, faculty and staff are committed to maintaining the WC atmosphere. “The level of increase we have been seeing is really quite modest and should not change our identity and character as a small, residential liberal arts college,” Christopher Ames, Provost and Dean, assured.
One way to address the potential problems is to set a timetable to allow for gradual growth. In the immediate future, admissions will stay fairly constant. “We are actually planning to admit fewer students this year than last and hope to enroll essentially the same number of freshmen in 2011 as we did in 2010,” said Coveney.
Coveney also said that, “the current plan is to increase the size of the entering class by five students annually for the following three years.”
That will require turning more students down in the admissions process, but this, also, is a positive thing. “Admission standards have been rising, so the College is actually becoming somewhat more ‘exclusive,’” said Ames.
Ames listed several other benefits to having a larger student body. “Increased enrollment benefits the budget at a time when the overall economy has put pressure on it. A healthier budget means better services for students and better pay increases for staff and faculty. A somewhat larger enrollment may also give us better ‘critical mass’ for students interested in finding like-minded students with common interests for clubs, activities, and so forth.”
As with any change, a growing student population may also present problems for WC. One that many students may be familiar with already is a shortage of space for residential students, as this year has required the housing of students in Gibson 100 and in lounges on many floors in other residence halls.
“Eventually, we are likely to build the third residence hall by Sassafras and Chester that was originally planned for that area,” Ames said. “It would share the same design as those facilities and use the same geothermal heating and cooling system.”
“The administration, faculty and board are discussing appropriate enrollment targets,” Ames said, so it is unknown exactly how soon any expansions will be necessary.
It will also be necessary to expand the faculty if growth continues at this level. “We are committed to a 12:1 ratio of students to faculty and will add faculty to maintain that ratio as the overall college enrollment grows,” said Ames.
“Being able to add some faculty will increase the number and range of courses available to students, while still maintaining our essential character,” Ames elaborated. “We are committed to staffing the College appropriately to meet increased enrollments.”
Ames also cautioned that “During the growth period, adding faculty typically lags a bit to make sure we are maintaining the higher enrollment.” If new faculty are hired and the enrollment drops back down, there would be consequences for the college’s budget. The necessary lag may result in some very brief changes in the ratio of students to faculty.
However, staff are confident that the growth will result in good things for WC. “I do think that an increase in the size of the student body will be beneficial. Increased demand for Washington College allows the College to become more selective and better known,” Ames said.
Most importantly, no matter how much enrollment changes, WC will still be the school that students love. “No one is contemplating any level of growth that would change the fundamental personal nature of Washington College,” Ames promised.