How One University Chopped Enrollments

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While some university presidents are proudly beefing up enrollments, Northeastern University's Richard Freeland is presiding over one of the most remarkable academic "downsizing" efforts in recent memory.

Not too long ago, Northeastern, in Boston, was the nation's largest private university, with more than 50,000 students. But when it "hit the wall" and enrollment fell short by more than 1,000 students in 1990, the school made lemonade from its lemons by continuing to chop enrollment - to about half of its peak. The reason, Dr. Freeland says, is purely academic. As the school has cut back, the quality of its students was rising, along with admissions standards.

"We found ourselves in 1990 with significant underenrollment," he says. "The conclusion was that Northeastern had simply gotten too large for its own good."

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Officials decided to compete for applications more on the quality of academic offerings rather than their price, he says. Today the school has about 27,000 students, having cut the freshman class from 4,500 in the late 1980s to 2,800 today.

But even though tuition has risen substantially, the quality of the students and the standards for admission are rising.

Will Northeastern loosen its belt now that applications are surging? "It would make our budgeting easier," he concedes. "But we see the next 10 years as a period to increase our selectivity and quality.... So, when the next downturn comes, we will be able to sustain our current size and quality."

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