National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Fall 2007


Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 8:2, Fall/Winter 2007. Copyright © 2007 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


“Nothing fails like success,” economist Kenneth Boulding observed decades ago. He went on to explain that we only learn from failure; if a particular pattern of behavior or policy seems to be working we continue it until, of course, it fails. Then we might learn something. The law of diminishing marginal utility echoes Boulding’s aphorism. What starts out as a source of pleasure yields diminishing utility until it reaches zero or even sinks to a negative return. I recall that my introductory economics instructor used the example of how the pleasure yielded by the first in a series of cold beers on a hot day ultimately becomes a nausea-inducing, coma-provoking calamity. I expect the beer example is still widely used in introductory economics classes.
This line of somewhat counter-intuitive thinking corrects the conventional wisdom that you cannot have too much of a good thing (or you can’t be too rich or too thin). Unfortunately, for successful honors programs and colleges, the conventional wisdom often seems to guide the policy making of university leadership when it comes to determining the appropriate size of a college or program. After all, administrators seem to think, if a program is perking along with 500 students, it will be twice as good with a 1000.