Last week gave me plenty to think about in regard to creating more opportunities for students to pursue a liberal education at the college level. On Tuesday night, I met with the extraordinary group of veterans who will be starting out at Wesleyan in the class of 2018. While they come from a wide variety of backgrounds, their experience in the military has had a powerful impact on all of them as they prepare for the next stage in their education.
The next day I headed to Washington for a gathering of college and university presidents concerned with creating greater access to higher education for students from low-income families. But access isn’t enough. We also discussed how to improve preparation for college work in the K-12 sector, and also how to ensure that those students we do admit will be successful as undergraduates. Michelle Obama told us that education as opportunity was the story of her life, and she movingly described her own path from working class Chicago to Princeton. She also made the important point, echoed by many others, that low-income students had many assets when compared to those who grew up with privilege. These students had already learned from their struggles; they already had overcome obstacles in ways that prepare them for leadership. We needn’t feel sorry for these students, the First Lady emphasized, we just need to understand how to leverage the strengths they were already bringing to the table.
President Obama made the point that economic recovery without social mobility would undermine our society, and that education was a key to social mobility. Only 9% of students from the bottom economic quintile attend college, but 90% of this group that completes college won’t remain at the bottom of the economic ladder. We can do a lot better than 9% in the United States, and we here at Wesleyan will find ways to do our part. Our alumni remind us again and again: education creates opportunity — not just for a higher salary, but for a more meaningful life.
At Wesleyan we will continue to make financial aid our highest fundraising priority. Our THIS IS WHY campaign has raised more than 320 million dollars, and the majority of those funds will go to the endowment, mostly to support scholarships. I know that some question how I can call for greater access to college when I have also said that Wesleyan cannot be fully “need blind” at this time. Here’s the answer: we remain about 90% need blind, and we will strive to do more. But we must have a sustainable financial aid program, one that doesn’t economically undermine the very educational program to which we are creating access. We must not use our financial aid resources “blindly;” we must use them intentionally to create access where it will matter the most.
Of course, I would prefer not to have to worry about how to pay for the Wes educational experience we value so much. But our endowment, substantial as it is, does not grant us that luxury. So we build the endowment now, with financial aid as our highest priority. Through fundraising and smart endowment management, we will be able to afford to be need-blind in the future without resorting to high loans or tuition increases just to preserve the label. We will no longer raise tuition aggressively, nor will we increase loan requirements. We will gratefully raise more money for scholarships so that a decade from now we will be in a position to promote access without undue worry about how much that will cost.
But we don’t have to wait a decade to do more now. We can use our financial aid dollars to meet the full financial need of every student at the university. In addition, hundreds of Wesleyan students and dozens of faculty and staff are already engaged in helping students in the K-12 system enhance their learning. Over the next several weeks I will be meeting with leaders of many groups involved in this effort to see how we might join forces under the banner of college readiness. We can work together to give students in Middletown and surrounding communities more opportunities to be prepared for and have success in higher education. We can do what Wesleyan folks have always done: advance our own learning by doing good in the world.
Ours is not a perfect situation, but it is one that we can build on to expand access and create opportunity.