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.


5 thoughts on “What College Should Be”

  1. I agree with Kevin-making Wesleyan no longer need blind is going to change what makes Wes so wonderful. A group of wonderfully diverse students who, irregardless of their financial ability, thrive. I believe it will turn into what my daughter wanted to avoid in a college: a group of entitled rich kids there because they can afford it. I really think a huge mistake has been made.

  2. Dear President Roth and the greater community of Wesleyan students and alumni,

    My name is Allie Levey. After graduating in 2009, I worked for two years as an Assistant Dean of Admission for Wesleyan, recruiting, reviewing over two thousand applications from across the country and the world, and planned yield events ranging from WesFest to targeted outreach at first-generation, minority student cohorts among many other tasks and duties. I was able to see and feel the pressure and realize our lofty institutional goals to increase applications every year, make that pool more competitive, and enroll the most talented, diverse population possible. And guess what: we did. Dean Nancy Meislahn, supported by a collection of dedicated and polished admission professionals, accomplish this task every year. They even make space and time to train young people, like myself, to learn this trade and continue to work in support of higher education.

    After my stint at Wesleyan, I am now the Director of College Counseling at a pubic, open-enrollment charter high school in New Orleans. Our student body is 98% students of color, 95% free/reduced lunch, and 90% first-generation college hopefuls. There is no population of high school students in our country that has been crushed by a legacy of failing schools like my students have, regardless of Hurricane Katrina. The average reading level of the ninth grader that enters my school is the fifth grade. This year’s first graduating class will send 95% to a four-year college or university.

    The kickier: The first valedictorian of my graduating class will be attending Wesleyan. She was admitted to many of our competitor schools, those that were higher ranked, those with heftier endowments, those that wave the need-blind banner. She visited them. She visited Wesleyan. She came back to New Orleans gabbing a mile a minute about the quality of the students, the level of the classroom, and the variety of experience and personalities she encountered.

    In regards to this latest announcement about need-blind admission’s departure, and having helped shape the classes of 2014 and 2015, I must say that it makes complete sense. Now that I’m a college counselor serving students with the greatest financial needs, it makes even more sense.

    To continue to call ourselves need blind and increase loans while saying we meet full need is folly. Loans are the kiss of death in not only the neediest populations but also in the the fuzzy middle class income bracket. I also would ask those who became incensed at this announcement to know more about the students who apply to Wesleyan. Do I believe that no longer calling ourselves need-blind will hurt the pool of applicants in the long term? No, I don’t. I believe that we will still draw heavy applications from the same pool we always have: students from families who can afford this education.

    I think it’s courageous and honest to call us what we are. It will separate us from our competitors who claim to be need-blind yet saddled students of mine from families with $9,000 annual incomes with $15-20,000 a year in federal and private loans. This happens. If we did that, would that be fulfilling Wesleyan’s mission to be accessible? No.

    Please my Wesleyan community, remember my valedictorian. SHE is the consumer who matters most. Not Moms and Dads who self-congratulate at the April PTA meeting about their kid’s college plans, or alumni who are overly-sensitive to what they deem as bad press. Students from the neediest families will still have a chance at this education. An education I am proud to have had.

    This announcement will pressure others in higher education to be more transparent in their messaging about what accessibility really means. And yes, it will light a fire under alumni to give even more to boost our financial aid. It has for me. It should for you. I support President Roth for his courage in taking these steps.


    -Alexander (Allie) Levey ’09

  3. President Roth,
    I attended Wesleyan from 1997 to 2001. My parents are both public high school teachers and could never have afforded $ 45,000+ per year to send me to college. To emphasize how grossly out of touch this is with American society, the per capita income for the average American family is ~37,500 per year, about 10,000 dollars less than the cost to attend Wesleyan.

    I went to Wesleyan over accepting full ride at UMASS because of the fantastic financial aid package. Nobody in my town had ever gone to Wesleyan or any of the Ivy League schools. Had my parent’s income been part of the admission equation, I am sure I never would have been admitted in the first place.

    I worked hard at Wesleyan graduating as a 2000 Goldwater Scholar, a 2001 Watson Fellow, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and with 2001 University Honors (plus High Honors) recipient. I went on to recieve my PhD from Cornell, graduating top of my class and now work as a scientist at the largest energy company in the US.

    Wesleyan gave me this opportunity. The people at this university are the university. I don’t have the answer to the college’s financial problems, but I urge you to find a solution that maintains need blind admission and 100 % financial need.
    Dr. Adam R. Goss

  4. This is a note to Kevin and Martin and others who share their concerns about Wesleyan’s decision to alter its “need-blind” admissions and financial aid policy. This was a very difficult decision, in no small part because many of us have long considered the “need-blind” policy a defining feature of the institution. Speaking as a member of the University’s Budget Priorities Committee, however, I was eventually compelled, as was the administration, to realize that the policy was financially unsustainable and even counterproductive with respect to its nominal goals. The first thing to note is that by 2013, the school’s total annual financial aid expenditures will have quadrupled in absolute terms compared to 1997, and will have almost doubled (from 15% to 29%) since that year as a percentage of the school’s operating budget. This reflects the fact that need-blind is the policy tail that wags the university’s budgetary dog, since it commits the institution to meeting accepted students’ financial need, whatever that turns out to be.

    Historically, the university has met the rising absolute and relative costs of this policy in four main ways, all of which have impaired either the institution’s long-run financial independence or the adequacy of its financial aid offerings: 1) maintaining a comparatively higher annual draw on the endowment and annual giving, which goes a long way toward explaining why Wesleyan is at or near the bottom among its peers in endowment per student, a key (to my reading, *the* key) measure of the university’s financial capacity to accomplish its educational goals; 2) continually increasing tuition at rates well above the general inflation rate, which reduced the relative affordability of a Wesleyan education; 3) repeatedly increasing the size of the student body (most recently, an increase of 120 students, phased in over 4 years), further eroding our endowment per student ratio; and 4) reducing the comparative generosity of our financial aid package by, among other things, raising the proportion of loans to grants and restricting the range of college-related costs covered by aid.

    In a nutshell, Wesleyan does not have a sufficiently high endowment per student to maintain its need-blind policy while offering financial aid packages that are competitive with those of the institutions we compete with for students. Here are some of the consequences of that situation: 1) It is important to note that Wesleyan was *already* less than 100% need-blind prior to this decision, because transfer and international students were excluded, for cost reasons. So “need-blind” as a categorical commitment was already a dead letter before this decision, because Wesleyan could not afford it. 2) Martin raises the concern that if we go off our (mostly) need-blind policy, we’ll end up with “a group of entitled rich kids, [h]ere because they can afford it.” Putting aside the question of entitlement, I would note that this has *already* been occurring, even with (and possibly in part because of) the need-blind policy. Senior surveys suggest that the percentage of the senior class coming from very high-income families has increased from 30% to 47% over the past 10 years–that is, from less than a third to almost half of the class, despite the significant concurrent increase in the financial aid budget. This trend has been accompanied by a “hollowing out” of the proportion of students coming from a broad middle range of income. There is reason to think that this shift is due in part to the relative un-generosity of Wesleyan’s financial aid packages, which implies among other things a comparatively higher proportion of loans and work expectations for middle-income aid recipients. As a result, to an increasing extent, those who find it most attractive to accept Wesleyan’s admission offers come from the lowest-income families (that benefit from the no-loans guarantee instituted by President Roth) and the highest-income families (that do not need financial aid). Another way of putting this is that while Wesleyan’s admissions and financial aid policy was formerly “need-blind” (excepting transfer and international students), it was not “need-neutral,” since students from families with lower levels of need (in Allie’s phrase, the “fuzzy middle class…”) received insufficiently generous financial aid packages.

    A seemingly paradoxical upshot of the last point is that by eliminating the inflexibility imposed by the need-blind policy, Wesleyan might be able to attract classes that are more evenly distributed across family income levels. This might be achieved by making financial aid packages more generous for students from families with intermediate income levels, presuming that this would raise the admissions yield from this broadly defined group.

    I agree with Kevin’s assertion that need-blind is “a good ideal,” considered in the abstract. But given Wesleyan’s financial situation, pursuit of this ideal has translated into a self-defeating policy that arguably also compromised other ideals, such as maintaining the quality of a Wesleyan education. I wouldn’t insist that Wesleyan should abandon need-blind, but any discussion of maintaining that policy should consider the indicated costs of doing so.

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