From Affordability To Transformation

Since I first posted a blog at the Washington Post about affordability plans at Wesleyan, there has been strong interest in our three-year option. I’m delighted and a little surprised. As I’ve said, it’s not for everybody, but the three-year possibility might make sense for many people. Here are two audio clips in which I’ve discussed what we are doing in this regard:

NPR Marketplace

WOR Radio New York

When I arrived in the office this morning, Heather Brooke asked me how I liked the Wall Street Journal piece. I didn’t know anything about it, and then was surprised to read the opening lines of an op-ed by Fay Vincent:

As the costs of attending college continue to mount, often well beyond the rate of inflation, the search is on for ways to economize. One seemingly obvious way is to reduce the number of years required to graduate. Last month, Wesleyan University, the private liberal-arts college in Middletown, Conn., did just that.

President Michael Roth announced that his institution would encourage students who wanted to complete the requirements for the Bachelor of Arts degree in three years rather than the customary four. These students would take some course work during the summer along with their normal load during the school year.

“I think it’s important to show that liberal arts colleges, even ones as selective as Wesleyan, are trying to do something about affordability,” he told the Associated Press. Tuition, room and board there is nearing $50,000 per year.

There are a smattering of other colleges across the nation that have three-year programs, but none with as high an academic profile. And while the Wesleyan decision has not attracted much attention or discussion, I suspect there will be more such cost-saving efforts in coming years.

Mr. Vincent was underestimating the price of institutions like Wesleyan, but I was pleased to see him encouraging experiments that will enhance affordability. At Wesleyan, we also want our experiments to intensify the educational experience so that it is more compelling than ever. A liberal arts education has long been about transformation. With Wes faculty, students, staff and alumni making contributions, we can also transform liberal learning so that it’s more relevant than ever!

First Day of Summer: The Work Continues

Wandering around campus on this first official day of summer, I see signs of the increased use of our facilities that we have been encouraging these last few years. The Summer Session, now in its third year, has continued to grow, and the students I’ve spoken with are enjoying the small classes and the intense focus. The double-course on filmmaking and film studies seems to be going really well, and I suspect we will be adding resources in this area in the future. Speaking of film, our summer series of free films linked to our archive will begin in a couple of weeks. This year the focus is on some of Paul Newman’s greatest roles, and the line-up (with introductions by Mark Longenecker) is impressive. The series begins on Tuesday, July 10 at 7:30 with Cool Hand Luke, and it continues each Tuesday through July.

Paul Newman - Cool Hand Luke

Heading over to the Exley science center, I am likely to bump into some of the scores of students working in labs. For many years our undergraduates have been able to participate in high-level research and get financial support in the summers for doing so. Much of this support has come from the Hughes Foundation, and we recently learned that we will have to raise our own funds to continue this work in the future. I am working closely with our science faculty and trustees to raise the funds to support mentored summer research. Research support for students is a crucial complement to our financial aid program (about which I am posting more information on the Wesleyan 2020 site).

On the left above is Claire Palmer ’14, and Lisle Winston ’14 and grad student Upasna Sharma are on the right. They were busy working in Scott Holmes’ molecular biology lab when I interrupted them. I also spoke with some students doing exciting work on protein expression and on bacteria from Death Valley and from Slovenia (I didn’t know bacteria had “zip codes”).

Olin Library

I stop in to Olin Library from time to time to pick up books that might prove useful for my own research regarding the development of liberal education in the United States. Olin in summer is an oasis of serenity, as it is (relatively speaking) throughout the school year. Wandering around the stacks, I always find more books than I came looking for. Now all I need to do is find the time to read them! When I leave campus for a break, I will continue my book project on the intellectual history of liberal education in America. The tension between learning for its own sake and learning for practical goals runs like a red thread through the history of American higher education. Rather than try to dissolve that tension, I believe we should cultivate it to generate deeper scholarship and more productive enterprises. The mistake is to think we must choose between liberal learning and an expansive pragmatism.

Summertime is here with intensity today, but the livin’ ain’t easy. The work continues in classrooms, labs, offices and studios.




What College Should Be

Yesterday the New York Times Book Review published my review of Andrew Delbanco’s recent College: What it Was, Is and Should Be. Here’s an excerpt and a link.


Andrew Delbanco must be a great teacher. A longtime faculty member at Columbia, he is devoted to the development of his students as individuals, and recognizes that their time in college should be formative: “They may still be deterred from sheer self-interest toward a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility.” Like most professors devoted to teaching, he has no interest in telling undergraduates what to think, but he does want to draw them toward a sense of skepticism about the status quo and to a feeling of wonder about the natural world. College, he tells us, is a time to learn to “make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena,” to see things from another’s point of view and to develop a sense of ethical responsibility. At a time when many are trying to reduce the college years to a training period for economic competition, Delbanco reminds readers of the ideal of democratic education.

In “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” he recalls this ­ideal’s roots in English and American Protestantism. In this country, education was never supposed to be only about imparting information. It has long included character development — turning the soul away from selfish concerns and toward community. Delbanco cites Emerson’s version of this turning: “The whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that men are convertible. And they are. They want awakening.” Even secular teachers are trying to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep.”


Selective colleges and universities ought to be shaping campus communities that maximize each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to learn from the most unexpected sources. To do so, and to deliver on the promise of our ideals, we must maintain robust financial aid programs and end the steep rise of tuition. If we’re to become more affordable and more responsible, we must replace spending for cachet with investments in student learning.

Delbanco stresses that “one of the insights at the core of the college idea” is the notion that “to serve others is to serve oneself by providing a sense of purpose, thereby countering the loneliness and aimlessness by which all people, young and old, can be afflicted.” Like John Dewey, he knows that education is a “mode of social life” in which we learn the most by working with others. Like William James, he prizes those “invasive” learning experiences that open us up to the “fruits for life.” The American college is too important “to be permitted to give up on its own ideals,” Delbanco writes. He has underscored these ideals by tracing their history. Like a great teacher, he has inspired us to try to live up to them.


Building on our Conversations: From Economics to Education

University Budget discussions take place over several months, with a variety of committees weighing in before the final document is approved by the Board of Trustees at its May meeting each year. Since 2008, we have tried to make much more information available to faculty, staff and student representatives. There is a budget priority committee, a compensation and benefits committee, a budget working group, and then the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees. There are students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents on these different committees so that we can benefit from their input. The Board, mostly Wesleyan alumni with student, faculty and staff representatives, approves the final budget.

We have been discussing the budget with faculty, student, alumni and staff representatives all year — with a series of focused conversations since February. Of course, not each and every member of these groups has been personally consulted, but representatives have had access to all the data we have. These discussions have been reported on in the Argus, Wesleying, and on this blog.

There have been some folks who want to cut the arts, or athletics, or research support, or sabbaticals, or landscaping, or food quality, or the level of air conditioning. Any meaningful cuts are cuts to compensation levels or to the number of employees at the university.

There have also been folks who want to increase revenue. Come to think of it, nobody has been against increases in revenue! But there are people who are against hiking tuition even more aggressively than we have done in the past, against increasing the number of students leading to crowded classrooms, against selling buildings and land, and against the further commercialization of the university.

There are people who think we shouldn’t worry about the endowment. Rather than put money into the endowment for the future, worry about the needs today. This view has played an important role in Wesleyan’s history, but in recent years we have asked our donors to direct their gifts to the endowment even as we have reduced spending from the endowment. I think this is especially important given the significant losses our investments sustained in 2008. We have yet to recover from those losses, and we still must prepare to begin repaying the $200 million of debt on our books from the early 2000s.

Despite all of these issues, Wesleyan is in an enviable financial situation. We have a balanced budget every year, a beautiful campus and great facilities. As compared to our peer institutions, we are very lean in regard to administrative expenses, thanks to our hardworking staff. Our faculty is second to none: dedicated teachers who also advance their own fields through research and creative practice. We have many resources on which to draw, the most important of which is an extraordinarily talented group of people who care fervently about the health of the institution.

I believe we have charted a sustainable path to maintain for the long-term the highest quality educational experience for our students. This includes supporting the teacher-scholar model that has served us so well, and seeking a diverse student body whose talents, independence and work ethic will enable them as graduates to build on the transformative impact of their Wesleyan years and make a lasting contribution to the world around them.

We will continue to discuss this path, and how we can improve it, with all members of the Wesleyan family. Beginning again in the fall we will continue to meet on campus with student, staff, alumni and faculty groups to gather their best ideas, and we will  integrate these into our planning. We will post information online, and we will meet with alumni groups around the country. We will be discussing more than university finances. We will be discussing how Wesleyan’s approach to liberal arts education can continue to make a positive impact on our graduates and on our society. We will be discussing how our curriculum should respond to the challenges and opportunities of today, so that our alumni are in a position to help shape the culture of the future.

I look forward to these conversations, and I expect to learn from them. After all, there is a lot at stake — not just for Wesleyan but for the future of progressive liberal arts education.

Financial Aid: Now More Than Ever

In my previous post, I described some of the steps Wesleyan is taking toward what I called “sustainable affordability.” One step is almost uncontroversial: we will no longer raise tuition rates in excess of inflation rates. Over time, this should mean that we will no longer be among the most expensive schools in the country. Some commentators have suggested that we more aggressively charge those families who can most afford to pay. I don’t think this is a serious option. We can (and we will) ask families with economic capacity to contribute to our financial aid scholarship funds.  Their philanthropy is more important than ever, but we will not build philanthropy into price.

The most controversial step I described was being only as “need-blind” as we can afford to be. Many people believe that being “need-blind” is a sign of quality — educational quality and moral quality. As I’ve said before, we could be “need-blind” and spend less money on scholarships. It’s easy for schools to choose metrics of student quality (like SAT scores) that correlate with wealth. They can say they are “need-blind” while having a more homogeneous student body. Schools can also remain “need-blind” by increasing loan levels or expected parental contribution. We will not do this.

This is what we will do: Wesleyan will continue to seek a diverse student body,  continue to meet full need, and continue to hold down student debt. We will continue actively to seek students who have great academic potential and very high need — families whose incomes make them eligible for our no-loan program, students who will receive full scholarships. And we will strive to find ways to make Wesleyan more affordable to middle class students. I am grateful for the suggestions in this regard in the blog comments, and we will study them and other ideas throughout the next academic year. These will be discussed on campus and with alumni in various parts of the country. Following up on suggestions in the comments, we will be making more of our financial planning documents available on the web as updates to the Wesleyan 2020 site.

The third step I described in my previous post is a three-year option for the BA. This idea has generated considerable discussion across the country. The three-year option may be an affordability choice for many students. It does not require overloads, nor does it steer folks to particular majors or jobs. The three-year option is not, though, for everyone, nor is it a form of financial aid. It’s a choice of how to get a great education in a more affordable way.

I want to be clear: As we increase our endowment levels, we will spend even more money on financial aid. Financial aid endowment and endowing key academic programs are the highest priorities for our fundraising efforts. Our generous parents and alumni have been donating tens of millions of dollars so that we can continue to meet the full economic needs of a very significant percentage of the Wesleyan student body. Labels aside, we are more dedicated than ever to supporting our students so that they can get the most out of their education. Labels aside, we will continue to use a holistic admissions process that strives to create a diverse class of talented students from different parts of the world, from all walks of life.

We will not pursue economic policies that undermine the long-term viability of alma mater. We want our university to be stronger over time, not for the sake of our endowment, but so that future generations can benefit from a Wesleyan education. Financial Aid — now more than ever.

We have been discussing these ideas about sustainable affordability over the last year with students, faculty, alumni and staff, and we will continue to gather ideas about how best to proceed. We do not expect these to be easy conversations. These questions can look very different from different perspectives. But to all of you who care deeply about Wesleyan, be assured that we will redouble our efforts to find ways to hold down costs, enhance diversity and increase support for scholarships. We want to increase access to Wesleyan not just for the near term, but also for the long term. Financial aid — now more than ever. Wesleyan — now more than ever.