With immigration policy back in the news, I’m reminded that when I was a lad 40 years ago, the cutting-edge wisdom was that rapid population growth was a major problem. (Granted, my parents didn’t let me stay up school nights to watch Johnny Carson, who had Paul Ehrlich, author of the bestseller The Population Bomb, on The Tonight Show about 20 times.) Yet nobody else these days seems to remember the arguments that once struck America’s influential classes as persuasive.
Sure, the doomsayers’ prophecies were overblown, but the notion that moderation in the size of the population has its advantages has hardly been debunked. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom has simply flipped 180 degrees. That an increase in the quantity of residents isn’t an unalloyed good for Americans is now widely sneered at as some crackpot theory that only hippies on acid would countenance. Everybody knows that a bigger population is Good for the Economy.
In the current immigration debate (if we can call the coordinated marketing campaign we’re being subjected to a “debate”), we are told by Wall Street, academia, corporate shills, and the media that a stable population would be a dire fate. (Not that the US is in terrible danger of that: The number of inhabitants has grown by 34 million in this century.) Thus, illegal aliens are doing us a big favor by coming here to have the children they can’t afford to have in their own countries.
And yet the experts enlightening us about the wonders of a bigger populace don’t seem to be in any hurry for their own communities and colleges to grow. From checking the statistics of elite institutions, you might almost get the impression that the “revealed preference” of people who are good at getting what they want is for very slow population growth.
A lasting inheritance of the 1960s-1970s is an arsenal of environmental, urban planning, and historical preservation regulations that are used by the rich and intelligent to raise the drawbridge behind them. For example, Greenwich, Connecticut is the home of the hedge-fund industry, which I am told has been doing well. Yet from 2000 to 2010, the Census showed Greenwich’s population inching upward by 0.1 percent.
Over that same decade, Beverly Hills, the centerpiece of the entertainment industry, grew ten times faster: 1.0 percent. (In contrast, the entire country increased almost ten percent, and Bakersfield, California mushroomed over 40 percent.)
What about Cambridge, Massachusetts, America’s academic capital? The site of Harvard and MIT increased 3.8 percent in the last decade. Still, Cambridge is smaller than it was in 1950.
The borough of Manhattan, which has been financially booming since the stock market took off in 1982, grew 3.2 percent over the last decade. Yet Manhattan remains about 30 percent less populous than a century ago.
Old-money Palm Beach, Florida declined 20 percent.
Even the trendiest city in 21st-century America, Portland, the subject of countless feature articles and a TV show about youngish white people flocking there for the urban hipster lifestyle (”The dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland”), has grown only about as fast as the national average.
What about Red State America? Surely rich Republicans are practicing what they preach?
Buckhead, “the Beverly Hills of the South,” the north Atlanta neighborhood that was the setting for Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, grew 22 percent in the last decade as Charlie Croker-style developers put up more luxury high-rises. Similarly, the population of affluent Plano, outside of Dallas, rose 17 percent.
Scottsdale, Arizona, a sprawling (184 square miles) suburb of Phoenix, home to countless new golf developments in the late 20th century, was allowed to grow only 7.2 percent in the 2000s, despite skyrocketing home prices during the housing boom.
Even more strikingly, over the last generation, elite colleges have concentrated upon becoming more elite, not more accessible. Immigration boosters insinuate that patriotic Americans should want a nonstop deluge of immigrants to prove we’re Number One. In practice, though, the attitude of America’s most celebrated colleges has been identical to that of our snobbiest country clubs: Who needs the hassles of growth when our prestige is proportional to the multitudes turned away?
Some colleges have swollen to keep up with the country’s vibrantly diverse population, such as U. of Central Florida and Arizona State. But they tend to be ones you mostly read about on the sports page, if anywhere. For example, in Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe spoofs Florida International—now the nation’s fourth-largest undergraduate college with 39,147 students, two-thirds of them Hispanic—by calling it Everglades Global University. Nonetheless, few people outside of South Florida will get Wolfe’s joke, because who ever heard of Florida International U.?
In contrast, consider the growth rate of Harvard, the world’s richest university. The number of undergraduates in its class of 1986 was 1,722. After a quarter of a century, during which the US population grew by 75 million, Harvard’s class of 2011 was 1,726: an increase of four.
This is not to say that Harvard isn’t expanding: Faculty and grad students are up, and non-teaching staff skyrocketed.
Similarly, Yale’s undergraduate student body has been the same size since 1978. Five years ago, the second-richest college announced a proposal for adding a couple of dormitories, but construction won’t proceed until another $300 million is raised.
In 2010, MIT unveiled plans to expand undergrad enrollment by six percent, which would only get it back to where it was in the 1990s.
Among the most prominent colleges, Princeton is the only one over the last generation to have actually succeeded in boosting enrollment (and that by only about ten percent) after it opened the Whitman residential college in 2007.
Some colleges have constricted campuses, but Stanford has it all: a $17-billion endowment, new gifts of over a billion dollars just last year, 36,632 applicants for the freshman class of 1,767, and an immense 8,180-acre campus in the heart of Silicon Valley featuring seven squares miles of undeveloped parkland.
In 2007, Stanford president John Hennessy pointed out that “the size of our undergraduate population has remained nearly level for more than 35 years. In 1970, the undergraduate class size was 6,221; in 1980 it was 6,630; last year it was 6,689.” The consequent increase in the rejection rate allowed Stanford to more than double its percentage of freshmen scoring 700 or higher on the Math SAT. (Over the same period, California grew from 20 million to 36 million—although in fairness, California’s test scores did not improve as much as Stanford’s.)
Hennessy went on to issue a less than ringing call for Stanford insiders to start talking gingerly about the pros and cons of growth:
This is not a conversation to be undertaken lightly. To be certain, expanding the size of the undergraduate student body even slightly would have consequences—educational, social and financial.
Then in 2009, Hennessy announced that he had “postponed consideration of the question of whether Stanford could or should increase the size of its undergraduate student body.” Notice that the Stanford president didn’t postpone expansion: He postponed considering whether Stanford should, or even could, expand. Can’t be too hasty: If Stanford winds up with one undergrad per acre of campus, who knows what could go wrong?
Perhaps the defining activity of American life since the 1960s has been elites conspiring to become more elite. While it’s fun to point out the hypocrisy of the most successful, it’s also worth noting that maybe they are on to something in their desire for quality over quantity in people.
But that’s the last thing we’re supposed to think about it when it comes to immigration policy.
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