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Why Notre Dame should expand enrollment

| Monday, August 28, 2023

In a group chat I share with some of my Notre Dame friends, somebody posted a graphic from the Notre Dame admissions Twitter page. It showed a few statistics about enrolled students in the class of 2027, but the highlight was the admit rate: 12%.

“That degree’s getting better and better every year boys,” one of my friends said.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this sentiment. At the Welcome Weekend mass my freshman year, Fr. Jenkins proudly declared that a large portion of that year’s senior class would not have been admitted if they had applied three years later. While the steady surge in applicants reflects positively on Notre Dame’s reputation, the drop in acceptance rate signals that it is time to increase enrollment.

I have benefited from Notre Dame’s holistic focus on educating “Mind, Body and Spirit,” even if I couldn’t always see its value. I once told my philosophy discussion section leader that studying the subject was a waste of time, only to end up graduating with a degree in philosophy. I had unique opportunities during my time at Notre Dame for personal and spiritual development that weren’t available at different universities.

We all know the Lou Holtz quote, “For those who know Notre Dame, no explanation’s necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation will suffice.”

The value of a Notre Dame degree can also be demonstrated through more easily quantifiable outcomes. We routinely rank among the best in the country on measures of degree value. Keeping the student body size fixed limits this experience to an ever-decreasing percentage of the applicant pool and would exclude a huge group of applicants that were acceptable just a few years prior.

There are self-serving reasons to favor enrollment expansion as well. Notre Dame prides itself on the strength of its alumni network and I don’t doubt the quality of these connections. Their quantity, however, concerns me. I worked at JPMorgan Chase following graduation. In my three years there, I only knew of one other Notre Dame grad in the markets business, despite it being the largest bank in the U.S. The presence of University of Michigan graduates, however, was conspicuous. Is this because Michigan is a better school than ND? (I would never admit this even if it were true.) I’d bet it has more to do with the relative size of our alumni pools. This problem feels even more severe outside of Wall Street. I have yet to meet a Notre Dame grad in the biomedical science field where I now work.

Some might think I’m just a bit unlucky, but I am intimately familiar with the alumni network’s benefits. I’ve seen my dad (‘83) bend over backward to help Notre Dame grads and I’ve gotten loads of invaluable career advice and connections from other alumni. During my junior year, a friend and I started a tailgate equipment rental business and connected with alumni networks all over the country to find customers and support. We would have failed without this network, which can be amazingly powerful. But it takes two to connect and the likelihood of forming such a connection grows with the size of the alumni pool. We should all want this network to grow.

My experience as a second-generation Notre Dame grad informs my second argument for increasing enrollment. I value the fact that my dad and I share the special relationship that comes with attending the same college. I suspect that many members of the tri-campus community would like for their children to have the same opportunity to attend our school. In an era of falling admit rates when preferences for legacy applicants are, deservedly, on the chopping block, the prospects of children of alumni being admitted are dimming. It’s simple math. 

Some objections to expanding enrollment are more reasonable than others and I want to address the one that seems most reasonable to me. Even though Notre Dame’s $20.3 billion endowment is huge by any standard, there is some limit to the resources we have at our disposal. Might increasing enrollment drastically strain the University too much? I think other similarly well-regarded universities can serve as a useful point of reference here. Brown University manages to serve a similarly sized student body with an endowment less than 32% of our size. Cornell University educates almost twice as many undergraduates with an endowment that is less than half our size. I struggle to see where Notre Dame’s endowment — which is almost 11 times larger per student — is leading to tangible outperformance when compared with Cornell. 

The time is right to re-examine how we feel about these figures, both because of our rapidly decreasing acceptance rate and because there is a larger conversation about college admissions taking place. The debate over affirmative action, admissions preferences for sports where youth participants are predominantly wealthy and/or white and legacy admissions policies, all concern the increasingly high-stakes allotment of a small number of acceptances at prestigious schools. I wonder if some of the angst could be taken out of these debates if the schools at their center were to simply expand enrollment. Notre Dame can and should lead in this regard. That starts with examining how the stated goals of our University relate to its admissions policies. To be fair to our administration, I don’t know if conversations about expanding enrollment have taken place. I do know these concerns do not appear in the school’s University Plan. 

I’ll offer one last admittedly cheesy thought to current ND students who should feel proud that they have been admitted at a time of such selectivity, but may not want to see their accomplishment diminished: You can’t freeze Notre Dame in time at the end of your senior year. Every alumnus comes to realize this at some point and the University’s recent decision to end interhall tackle football speaks to the fact that ND is always changing. By embracing a new strategy, we can better serve the present and future Notre Dame community.

Jonah Poczobutt

Class of 2018

Jun. 26

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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