Last week Columbia University announced a $400 million gift for financial aid  -- the kind of philanthropic grand gesture that most colleges only dream about. On Friday, the university was host to a gathering of college presidents, professors, foundation officials and others to talk about who goes to college, who doesn’t and what they learn there.
While the gift was referenced several times, the celebratory tone of that announcement was gone: Those gathered are worried -- deeply worried -- about whether top colleges are sufficiently open to low-income students, and whether colleges are providing the right experience for all of their students. “Anxiety about waste” is how Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies at Columbia and organizer of the conference, described it, and he wasn’t talking about the environment but “wasted human potential.”
Participants noted the tremendous successes of American higher education, but a repeated theme was that American colleges are at some kind of juncture -- at risk of going backwards (if they aren’t already) in their ability to be agents of what Anthony W. Marx, president of Amherst College, called one of their crucial roles in society: to provide “mobility based on merit.”
Marx and others said that they worried about elite colleges becoming inaccessible, about an irrational admissions process, about the ever-escalating cost of college, about quick fixes to these problems that may not be quick or fixes, about whether it was elitist or common sense to focus their discussion on highly competitive colleges, and why the public doesn’t understand the way academics look at these issues.
Delbanco told the group that there are two distinct, and not entirely mutually exclusive, ways to look at American higher education. One is the “triumphant story” of gradually expanding access. Befitting the literary scholar he is, Delbanco quoted Melville’s description of Captain Ahab as someone “who has been in colleges as well as among the cannibals” as a sign of how limited college attendance was seen in the American imagination. Going to college and hanging out with cannibals were “equally freaky,” Delbanco said.
Fast forward to a line in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons: “You stand on the street today and spit, you’re gonna hit a college man.” The idea there: College opened not only to greater numbers of men, but women, members of once excluded ethnic and racial groups, etc. etc.
But that’s one story only, Delbanco said. The other is one in which the higher education system “not only sustains, but enlarges the gap” between societal haves and have-nots, where the admissions frenzy to get into top colleges “dominates and distorts the lives of adolescents,” where standardized tests have become “tools for the wealthy” to get into college, and where students enter college so burnt out and cynical that they don’t want to open their minds, where campus counseling centers are overwhelmed with patients, and where cheating is rampant.
While Delbanco had scorn for the “corporate style academic entrepreneurship” that is encouraged by many colleges, he was also critical of the professoriate. There are too many top faculty members who “fly from conference to conference,” but can’t be bothered to think about what students should learn, he said.
Marx, of Amherst, said that he was very proud of the progress his college is making in reaching out to more low-income students. Twenty percent of this year’s freshmen are Pell Grant eligible, up from 15 percent just a year earlier. But he also said that “real biases” limit such students in competitive college admissions. These biases are no longer about race and ethnicity, but social class, he said.
Colleges not only require the SAT, but “reward you” if you can afford to take the test multiple times and bring up your score, Marx said. Extracurricular activities in high school have reached “absurd” levels and yet are rewarded in college admissions. Marx cited students who boast of their weekend trips to help the homeless in Honduras as examples of the silliness -- and said the example was a real one.
Meanwhile, he said, colleges are much less likely to reward someone who is “working in 7-Eleven to help support a family.”
There is a renewed social Darwinism present in American society that comes out in college admissions, Marx said. Parents who have “made it” assume that they did so on their merits and that their children deserve to make it, too. Colleges need to challenge this directly -- and make sure that their policies are consistent with their values. Students these days “are very astute when it comes to hypocrisy,” Marx said.
But while calling for idealism, Marx said colleges need to be careful not to go for the seemingly popular solutions that could create more problems than they would solve. Marx said that he had asked Amherst officials to consider, as an exercise, what would happen if the college stopped charging tuition. The current system is “crazy,” he said, and each tuition increase only adds to the pressure to add to the aid budget.
Amherst would need to double its endowment to drop tuition, Marx said, but would that be the right thing? Would it be a good thing to subsidize “Bill Gates’s kid” or the many others who can afford to pay? And what about higher education as a whole? Marx said that there were “maybe 10” colleges in the country, Amherst among them, that could even have this conversation. If they all eliminated tuition, would that encourage everyone else to offer merit scholarships to draw some of the top applicant pool? Would it create more “bifurcation” among colleges in a way that wouldn’t be healthy for society?
Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia’s president, said he was worried about another admissions issue. “I’m becoming more pessimistic about the survival of affirmative action in this country,” said Bollinger, who in his previous position as president of the University of Michigan led that institution’s fight to the Supreme Court to affirm the right of colleges to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.
Bollinger noted that Michigan voters recently adopted a state constitutional amendment barring the use of affirmative action in public college admissions,  and that foes of affirmative action are planning similar measures in other states. Beyond his frustration with the vote, Bollinger said he was bothered by the “degree of complacency” with which academics had responded to the outcome.
Had Michigan voters barred the teaching of James Joyce, Bollinger said, “you can bet there would be continuous outcries,” and yet there have not been about the Michigan vote against affirmative action. And the ban on affirmative action “is as much a challenge to academic freedom” as would be a ban on teaching Joyce.
Those at the conference got a bit of a challenge on the issue of racial diversity from Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia. Bailey pointed out that the closest community college to Columbia is Bronx Community College. There are about 7,200 black and Hispanic students there. That’s about as many black and Hispanic undergraduates as there are in the eight Ivy League universities combined, he noted. And when considering how many of the Ivy undergraduates aren't from low-income backgrounds, the contrast is even more striking, he said.
If education leaders really want to find ways to educate more minority students, Bailey said, it’s time to realize that the institutions that do have those students operate in “a different universe” from the Columbias of the world. How to best spend $400 million on financial aid? How to attract more low-income minority students? The first question isn't exactly a hot topic in the Bronx, Bailey said, and as for the second , community colleges aren’t worried about their ability to attract low-income minority students. They do that quite well.
Bailey’s point drove home a point panelists returned to: Does the very competitiveness of top colleges act against diversifying them? Marx said that there is nothing wrong with being highly competitive, but he said colleges that share that value need to be open to ways to make real changes to diversify. Amherst is getting larger,  for example, so efforts to attract more minority and international students need not be seen as competing with the constituencies that care about enrollment slots.
Austin E. Quigley, dean of Columbia College, the host university's main undergraduate college, said his institution was also considering an increase in undergraduate enrollments, along the lines of the plan currently being executed by Princeton University.
Several speakers discussed their concern about the view that higher education is a question of personal gain and not a public good. The educators gathered spoke time and again of the need for true general education to make students critical thinkers and thoughtful leaders.
Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University, talked about her encounters with students. In some cases, she spoke of the pride of hearing a student report on how working with the poor in Central America had changed her perspective on people in developing nations, and given her a sense that such people are real -- not just some statistic.
But Cantor talked about the “sadness” she felt when, after signing the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment,  a student journalist came to interview her and the first question was: “What’s in it for students?,” as if a university’s responsibility for the environment should be analyzed in terms of a tuition increase.
Cantor said that colleges need to emphasize a “new 3 R’s”: reflection, reciprocity and responsibility. Students need to “take time to watch others and learn from them,” Cantor said. Of reciprocity, she said that students need more than “cyberconnections” but real interaction with people they like, people they disagree with, people unlike them -- on equal terms.
As for responsibility, she said that when a problem takes place at a college or in higher education, talk immediately turns to “weeding out the bad apples.” Perhaps it’s time for another approach, she said: “Changing the culture.”