What if the University of Minnesota had 100,000 Students?

This is a thought experiment.

According to the US Department of Education (reported in wikipedia), the University of Minnesota has (Fall 2013) 63,929 students, ranking 19th in the US. Of course, many of those larger schools are for-profit, non-residential, cater to part-time students, or college systems. Among “peers”, (land-grantish research schools) larger schools include Arizona State, Central Florida, Ohio State, and Maryland.

Alternatively, the Twin Cities campus is the 9th largest public university in the US by enrollment, with 48,308 students (undergraduate about 34,500), falling several places, and several thousand students from 2009, when it was 4th.

But US universities are pikers compared to some others in the world. The National Autonomous University of Mexico has over 324,000 students. The University of Paris has XIII parts, which collectively have about 330,000 students.

There are numerous economies of scale to be had from a larger school (i.e. costs rise sub-linearly with the number of students because the delivery of education has a large fixed cost component like buildings and chairs and lectures and software and administration), and the evidence about quality of education with size of school (and even to an extent size of classes) is mixed (though everyone seems to like smaller classes better). (The evidence about student satisfaction tends to favor small elite liberal arts schools with a lot of hand-holding, land grants like the University of Minnesota will never compete in that market). These economies of scale should lower per pupil costs. Rankings like US News favor small class sizes, but also favor large universities.

The University of Minnesota has been removing buildings. That would stop if the University grew.

The University of Minnesota has been removing buildings. That would stop if the University grew.

Clearly the University of Minnesota rejects more students than it accepts (it has a 44% acceptance rate). If it just one year raised that to 88% several things would happen. First there would be more students (though it is not clear enrollees would double, more than double, or less than double, since rejected students might be more or less likely). Second, because it lost some of its exclusivity, fewer top tier students would apply. Many faculty would similarly find alternatives – not wanting to deal with the headaches twice as many students brings, though I imagine teaching slots would be filled with the glut of PhDs on the market in most fields. Class sizes would undoubtedly increase, but more classes could be offered. [After World War II, Georgia Tech, which saw an influx of GIs, expanded its night school, so that there would be a full second shift of courses]. Yet the quality of the University would on average drop.

Trends working in the opposite direction of increasing campus size include MOOCs, encouraging more online, distance learning. Getting those to work well has been difficult, and they are yet to be mainstream. Moreover a seldom-stated purpose of university, keeping students out of the labor market and in a semi-protected environment between home and the harsh cruel world cannot be accommodated with MOOCs. Demographics also move against rapidly expanding university size overall. However any one university should be able to increase market share, both with domestic and international students. Another purpose of university, providing a mixing bowl for organization of individuals into groups and couples, requires in-person attendance.

However if this were done more gradually but intentionally, with an aim of attracting more and better students, it should be possible to grow the campus to 100,000 over a decade or two.

From a physical perspective, the campus has significant room to grow, especially to the northeast, but also infill and intensification to the southeast, north, and on West Bank. Even more growth is possible on the St. Paul campus, which abuts the largely underutilized State Fair Grounds.

My guess is doubling enrollment would require far less then twice as much new classroom space, about a doubling of dorm and residential space, a bit less than doubling of graduate student offices and labs and faculty offices – less assuming many of the new teaching responsibilities would be borne by adjuncts rather than regular faculty.

Around campus, business would boom. New apartments, with ground floor retail and restaurants would fill in any of the empty parcels of Stadium Village and Dinkytown and West Bank.

Transit ridership to campus would more than double, since the capacity for cars on campus would decrease significantly (all those new buildings will use up surface parking lots, reason itself to support an expansion, pedagogy be damned) while total travel demand in terms of trips to campus rose.

Such a change would challenge Boston’s 250,000 students (not sure how this was calculated, must be “Greater Boston”) as the lead college town in the US. According to city-data, Boston’s college population is 14.6% of the total. The City of Minneapolis has 11.3%, near the top for large cities. Increasing enrollment by 50,000 students would increase the share of the City’s population in college by up to 12% (depending on where they lived, the maximum assumes they all live in Minneapolis proper), putting Minneapolis at about 23%. Clearly much of Boston’s attractiveness to college students is the surfeit of students already there. We don’t really operate in that league here yet.

If we think of college as a temporal port, just as immigrants from Europe used to land mostly in New York, and occasionally disperse from there, immigrants from youth land in college, and disperse slowly from that point. This should greatly increase innovation, as the region’s engine of growth scaled up and the region attracted boatloads of Generation Z/Post-Millennials to its lake shores.


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14 Responses to What if the University of Minnesota had 100,000 Students?

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke September 8, 2015 at 10:01 am #

    Interesting thought experiment. I wonder if Marcy-Holmes or Prospect Park neighborhood associations would be fans of this move?

    PS. Who wants an historic building when you can have a large metal sculpture on a pedestal?

    • Nick September 8, 2015 at 11:32 am #

      As a resident of Marcy-Holmes (but not speaking on its behalf), I know it’s a struggle just to get infrastructure to catch up to where we are right now. If adding that many people were done concurrent to the improvements in housing, retail, health care, transit, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure, the reception would probably be better than the current state of building things that can’t be served.

  2. Steven Prince September 8, 2015 at 10:16 am #

    I am skeptical that the research component at the U will ever make it a very efficient producer of baccalaureates or that significant increases in enrollment will result in greater efficiencies.

    The statistic you link to are head counts, since 1987 the focus on improving academic quality meant encouraging more full-time students and less part-time students, in part to reduce administrative costs. There was also a coordinated effort to simplify transfers to the U from community colleges so a smaller student population would produce more graduates. The belief was that lower division studies for many students could be provided closer to home and more effectively at technical and community colleges.

    It would be interesting to see how that has worked, since student enrollment has not changed much since 1987, what has happened to the number of undergraduate degrees granted?

    According to “A Plan For Focus” in 1987 the Twin Cities Campus with 45,000 students “may be the nation’s largest single institution of higher education.” (p. 5). In 1987 13% of undergraduates lived in campus dormitories.

    Clearly the educational landscape has shifted significantly in 28 years.

    Here’s a link ot the 1987 report: http://purl.umn.edu/116787

  3. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker September 8, 2015 at 10:50 am #

    Minnesota loses more population through domestic migration than it brings in, and the general population trends in this country are driven towards cheap housing in warm places, which does not favor the Twin Cities. (We might fair better in hypothesized future trends towards places where water is abundant.)

    Maintaining gradual population growth is a natural challenge for Minnesota, but the advantage is that the state and the cities can be fairly deliberate in how it’s done, since there is an element of recruitment and marketing involved. Increasing the Twin Cities’ university population is a great way to help bring in more people, as some greater percentage of students already in the state may stay for school and beyond, and some percentage of outside students will stay for a few years (like myself, with dreams of returning) or permanently.

    For many of the same reasons that I support efforts of Minnesota political leaders to increase the US and Minnesota’s intake of Syrian refugees, I think that deliberate expansion of the school body by the U of M would be a positive way to help grow Minnesota’s population.

    • Eric Anondson
      Eric Anondson September 8, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

      I’m in complete agreement on bringing Yazidi, Kurd, and Syrian refugees from the Syrian war …

      AND growing UofM student body as a way to grow Minnesota population.

    • Adam Froehlig
      Adam Froehlig September 8, 2015 at 6:56 pm #

      Presuming you’re excluding births deliberately here, since Minnesota (as with most states in the country) has a net population gain per Census statistics/estimates.

  4. David Markle
    David Markle September 8, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    Such an increase would put unprecedented development pressure on the West Bank’s Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

    • Nick September 8, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

      Are you saying that pressure is good or bad? I agree that it could cause a lot of change, but it is also one of the few areas that already has the transit infrastructure to support that growth.

    • Scott Shaffer
      Scott Shaffer September 8, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

      Maybe the pressure would be enough to build something at that Riverside Imports spot, or on one of the numerous surface parking lots!

    • Rosa September 9, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

      what about the area along the light rail in St Paul? it has a lot of room for developing upward. Also St Anthony Main.

      • Nick September 9, 2015 at 10:08 pm #

        St. Anthony Main is in Marcy-Holmes, the area mentioned by Bill Lindeke above.

        The land is there, but the infrastructure isn’t. It’s also one of the most complex, multi-jurisdictional areas in Minneapolis. Protected bike lanes in that area are tier two priority, the link between the Stone Arch Bridge and Dinkytown Greenway isn’t even on the city’s network plan, and Metro Transit doesn’t seem interested in exploring higher frequency for the 6 anytime in the near future (long-term priority in the current unfunded Service Improvement Plan). You could build plenty there, but it’ll just be a big mess of cars and hazardous pedestrian crossing until Minneapolis Public Works, Minneapolis Park Board, Hennepin County, MN/DOT, BNSF, Metro Transit and the University (and maybe the US Army Corps of Engineers too, if you’re lucky!) all agree to talk about sincerely fixing connectivity along the East Bank. I’m not holding my breath.

  5. Scott September 8, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

    I know it’s just an N of 1, but I arrived here in 1993 to start a graduate program at the U, and never left. When I arrived, I thought I would be a Minnesotan for 2 years, and then be off to wherever.

  6. Wayne September 8, 2015 at 9:31 pm #

    One big difference with Boston is that its student population comes from dozens and dozens of different institutions with various specialties. It’s going to be hard for one giant mega school to match the appeal and quality in certain specialties to bring people in from all over the country instead of just the upper Midwest. I know it’s just a thought experiment but I think the distributed nature of Boston’s student population is worth keeping in mind.

  7. David Markle
    David Markle September 11, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

    Good point from Wayne about the Boston student population relating to many institutions, not primarily to one.

    As to the West Bank’s suitability for big time student housing development, yes, there are pretty good transit connections, but we already have an automobile/truck traffic nightmare here as a major regional destination (University, University-Fairview Hospital and Augsburg College), exacerbated especially during afternoon rush hour by recent changes in the configuration on Cedar Avenue and Riverside Avenue. Existing regional transit simply is not attractive enough to reduce that automobile communter traffic. And there would be a specific pressure to tear down the many characteristic older buildings that lend much atmosphere to the West Bank.