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    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.

Minerva and the Quest to be Elite
April 12, 2012 - 12:10am

If you (or your campus) chase Warhol units (fifteen minutes – or seconds – of fame), then by all accounts last week was a good one for the folks who do PR for the Minerva Project, at least as measured by the three articles published by Inside Higher Ed:  Doug Lederman’s editorial coverage and blog posts from Audrey Winters and Joshua Kim.

My Inside Higher Ed colleagues addressed various aspects of the Minerva announcement: mission, curriculum, technology, students, and initial funding.    For me, a really interesting question is Minerva’s quest to be “elite.”

The “about us” statement on the Minerva web site opens with an ambitious statement: “The Minerva Project is the first elite American University to be launched in a century.”    While this statement may make for great PR, it is also wrong – semantically and historically.

Let’s begin with the semantics. Admittedly, we have seen significant “semantic creep” in American higher education over the past five decades as a large number of number of formerly undergraduate colleges have added a  limited range of (typically professionally-focused) masters’ programs and then proclaimed themselves to be universities.  However, the widely used working definition of a university, set forth by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education in 1970 and since updated by it’s successor organization, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, defines universities as institutions that have significant graduate programs, award doctoral degrees, and also have significant research activities and research funding.  Based on the limited information on the Minerva Project web site, Minerva is about undergraduate education.  Admittedly a small (academic?) nuance, perhaps, but one worth noting.

On to the history, as it is here that the facts, rather than semantics, are important.  Over the past century, and particularly since the end of World War II, there have been a number of ambitious efforts to create new, “elite” postsecondary institutions in the United States, including (but not limited to):

•  Deep Springs College: first students in 1917.

•  Bennington College: chartered in 1924; first students in fall 1932.

•  Harvey Mudd College: chartered in 1955; first students in fall 1957.

•  New College of Florida: chartered in 1960; first students in fall 1964.

•  University of California, Santa Cruz: planning begun in the mid-1950s; first students, fall 1965.

•  Hampshire College: chartered in 1965; first students in 1970.

•  Olin College of Engineering: chartered in 1997; first students in fall 2002.

The charter statements, planning documents, and official histories of these colleges highlight an institutional commitment to recruit exceptionally talented students and offer them an innovative yet rigorous curriculum.  Some of these institutions have graduate programs; faculty at most are engaged in research.  But only UC-Santa Cruz qualifies as a university under the Carnegie definition.  (Disclosure:  New College is my alma mater.)

Deep Springs College is often cited by admissions insiders as one of the nation's most elite colleges that remains largely unknown to most faculty, students, and the public. The college enrolls just 23 students in a two-year, full-scholarship program.  The Deep Springs web site reports that alumni go on to complete baccalaureate degrees “at the world's most prestigious four-year institutions;” about half eventually earn doctorates.  The application and admissions numbers Deep Springs vice president David Welle provided to me in a phone conversation last week reveal that the college admits less than eight percent of its applicants.  Unlike other highly selective colleges and universities which have experienced a rising tide of applications in recent years, Mr. Welle says that the number of annual freshman applications to Deep Springs has been fairly stable for the past few years.

Equally interesting in the historical conversation about elite institutions are those colleges and universities that have climbed the reputational ratings into the inner circle (or circles) of postsecondary elites over the past forty or fifty years. Some examples:  Duke University, New York University, the University of Southern California, and Washington University (St. Louis) are case studies of campuses that were once local or regional institutions that have transformed themselves into highly selective, “elite” universities.  

The conversation about elite higher education comes at an interesting time.  Earlier this month thousands of high school seniors rushed to their computer screens or awaited the arrival of the daily mail to learn if they were among the chosen who will be matriculating at the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities.  Concurrently, thousands of graduating college seniors, including students at the nation’s most elite colleges, are spending hours in front of their computer screens, searching for full-time jobs or post-graduation internships.  These graduating seniors are wondering about their opportunities in a difficult job market; many are understandably concerned that the pedigree of their degree may not offer the competitive advantage they anticipated.

The conversation about elite colleges also raises the question about effective institutions.  One of the most significant experiences I have had in my thirty-five year career in higher education occurred in the early 1980s.  As a newly minted PhD and the co-author of one of the first books on enrollment management, I was doing campus consulting with one of my co-authors.  In the middle what had been a fairly standard interview, a provost suddenly let flow a series of unexpected statements that condemned the academic quality of his institution.  His comments were based primarily on the conventional metrics:  test scores, grades, retention and degree completion rates.  Somehow I managed to turn the conversation from abstract numbers to real people: “Would want your child to be a student here?  Would you recommend this college as a good place for the children of your relatives and close family friends?”

The tone and tenor of the conversation changed immediately.  “Well, my child is a student here.”   The provost’s voice became animated and energetic.  As a parent and as an academic officer of the college, he was delighted – truly delighted – with his child’s education and collegiate experience.

The conversation was an epiphany for both of us.  The provost had a new filter for viewing the quality of his institution’s academic program.  And as the young consultant, I had a new framework I could utilize with campus officials in the always difficult conversation about quality: would you want your child to be a student at your campus?

And so dear reader, what are your thoughts? Would you want your child to be a student at your institution? Does making the “quality” conversation personal change the conversation?   Does a college have to be elite to be very effective?  And what are the attributes of very effective institutions?

 

 

 

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