Shape & Size

Executive Summary – Commission E
Preliminary Conclusions and Recommendations
October 9, 2005

Commission Charge

The charge to this commission was to consider changes in the total number of students or size of WPI, and in the shape of WPI, where shape refers to such aspects as the major areas of study, degrees awarded, and relative emphasis on graduate vs. undergraduate programs. 

(a - Size) What is the optimal enrollment (undergraduate, graduate) at WPI, from both financial and vision-driven perspectives? How is size affected by shape?
(b - Shape) What new academic and non-academic programs should WPI offer, to meet enrollment goals (size) and to support its vision? How can existing programs be better leveraged?

Conclusions with Regard to Size

A growth strategy (increasing the size of the university) should be pursued because:

  • Undergraduate growth can increase revenue, through increased net tuition (tuition minus financial aid).
  • Undergraduate net tuition provides the best leverage in the operating budget for increasing revenues. In the fiscal year 2006, net tuition from undergraduates represented 55% of total revenue operating budget. Other revenue streams (such as gifts) are currently a smaller percentage, and while important to pursue, offer less leverage. Other budget strategies, such as reducing expenses or increasing tuition, have been pursued recently and additional opportunities for improving financial stability are limited.
  • Graduate growth can enhance reputation, primarily by increasing the number of Ph.D. students and Master’s students engaged in research.
  • The faculty is receptive to well-planned growth. Interviews with academic department heads suggest that departments support growth in both graduate and undergraduate programs.
  • Growth in the past has been positive for WPI.

The following cautions regarding growth should be recognized:

Constraints must be acknowledged in the planning:

  • The most significant limit on growth is the size of the applicant pool, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Growth can only occur slowly, given the current size of the applicant pool, the expense associated with marketing and recruiting, and WPI’s current financial position. At the undergraduate level, selectivity was 85% for the current class (of students applying, 85% were accepted) and cannot be leveraged further to support growth. At the graduate level, the limitations are: (1) Numbers, and to some extent, quality for self-paying, part-time students, and (2) Quality, and to some extent, numbers, for full-time, supported students. Competition for good students is intense for undergraduates, as well as for full-time and part-time graduate students.
  • Capacity is a limiting factor, but given other limitations to growth, is manageable. Capacity availability differs across units in the university (classrooms, housing, campus center, physical facilities, staff, faculty), and different types of students impact capacity differently. Attention should be paid to these differences in planning. Gateway Park and planned campus renovations through 2012 provide additional physical capacity.

Expenses due to growth must be managed well:

  • Cost per student should be monitored with any expansion plan. Growth in enrollment can only improve the operating budget and WPI’s financial position if expenses due to growth are smaller than increased revenues. As enrollment grows, higher expenses might include: more faculty and staff, academic and nonacademic facilities, housing (self-funding), marketing, and higher-capacity information systems.
  • Marketing costs can be extensive. To grow the incoming class size by 25 undergraduates per year, an additional 125 applications (3.5% growth) would be needed each year, coming from an additional 625 inquiries. At this rate of growth, the undergraduate population at WPI would reach approximately 3,500 in 2014.

Quality and reputation must remain high and should be monitored to ensure that growth does not have an adverse affect:

  • The ‘high-touch’ feel of a small school is important to students.
  • Strains on staffing will affect the freshman year first.
  • Quality is multi-dimensional, including excellence in educational programs, student selectivity, and faculty/staff/student experience.

Conclusions with Regard to Shape

The best growth strategy would involve three approaches to maximize benefits, to engage the entire WPI community, and to mitigate risks, but must recognize that substantial results require significant actions. Specifically:

  • Grow the current student (STEM- science, technology, engineering, math) profile
  • Grow by attracting students outside WPI’s current profile, by adding new programs and leveraging existing programs
  • Grow the number of full-time graduate students in research-oriented programs.

Each approach has benefits and limitations:

  • Growth in the current STEM profile recognizes the substantial strength of WPI’s existing competitive position. Given good market penetration in New England, new opportunities for growth must come from geographic areas such as NY/NJ that have not been consistently targeted. However, focusing solely on students in the current STEM profile does not appear to support long-term growth or stability given the number of high school students expressing interests in STEM fields, combined with gender and minority demographics.
  • Increasing student enrollment outside of WPI’s traditional profile requires structural and operational changes. Overall, the WPI community seems strongly supportive of a technology-focused niche strategy. Introducing new programs is necessary but not sufficient, as demonstrated by past performance. Degree programs in Humanities and Arts, Social Science, and Management have represented about 7% of the total undergraduate population for the past 20 years. At the graduate level, about 20% of students pursue these majors, primarily in Management. Innovation in new programs has traditionally occurred at the department level. The best new opportunities may be interdisciplinary and/or lie outside of the current departmental structure, and must be evaluated for market impact and delivery cost. A substantial change in shape will require institutional commitment to real change, a substantial and sustained effort, and expenditure of significant resources. Hence, while the new majors may be less expensive in themselves, the ancillary costs, such as in marketing, and “positioning” (for example, by bringing in prestigious visiting faculty to establish academic credibility), to reach significant enrollment in these new majors must not be ignored.
  • Increasing the size of the research program is a critical component in improving national reputation and ranking, but does not generate unrestricted revenue. The Research Commission is formulating recommendations for increasing WPI’s research profile, which require structural changes but not necessarily new academic programs.


Given the overall conclusion that growth has been good for WPI in the past, and is desirable for the future, Commission E developed recommendations that if implemented, maximize the likelihood that growth will contribute both financially and academically to WPI’s well-being:

Develop a strategic positioning statement and implement marketing and recruiting plans that focus on enhancing and broadening our technology-focused niche strategy. Specific goals include:

  • Expanding inquiries for our existing academic degree programs, which target new geographic areas for STEM majors,
  • Enhancing and more effectively marketing management, social science, and humanities and arts degree programs.

Such plans should include evaluation of results against costs (e.g., # of student inquiries from non-traditional students vs. the cost of generating such inquiries on a per student basis).

Change WPI structure and processes to support growth, encourage collaboration, address biases, and measure results. Such changes might include:

  • Administrative and operational restructuring, with clear identification of authority and responsibility for accomplishing WPI’s goals, both in the administration and faculty governance. This restructuring should be informed by a careful study which considers aspects such as: the need to maintain the quality of the undergraduate program, the need to expand, in both size and quality, the graduate program, and the need to recognize (perhaps by the creation of schools) the differences among academic units.
  • Comprehensive evaluation of marketing, admissions, advising, and student life policies to discover opportunities for collaboration and components that may discourage potential and current students from outside the STEM areas. Similar evaluation should be undertaken for graduate students.

Create a mechanism to develop programs outside existing departmental boundaries: 

  • Overseen by the Provost's office (such as used to develop the BA program). The commission received many promising suggestions for new programs. Interdisciplinary options were emphasized as a clear opportunity, with topics arising both from research frontiers (such as nanotechnology) and areas of current popular interest (such as forensics). Admissions and enrollment management (graduate and undergraduate) should have a voice in program development. These programs should be evaluated using a broad set of criteria, including market potential, cost per student, and relationship to strategic goals.

Develop a plan to identify and manage the consequences of growth with respect to capacity and academic quality:

  • Including faculty and staff, facilities, and support programs. Growth first stresses departments involved with first-year students and creates difficulties (classrooms, student support services, housing, etc.); these require immediate action. Tools should be developed to track the revenue and expense impacts of growth against the planned numbers. Important measures of academic quality include student/faculty ratio, admissions selectivity, student course evaluations, alumni satisfaction, and external ratings and reviews.


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