As media response and alumnae outrage grew after last week’s announcement that Sweet Briar College will soon close its doors, the focus of the debate centered around whether the college leadership was courageous in seeing a dismal future and responding promptly, or precipitous in abandoning hope before it was truly necessary. No matter the answer, it seems obvious to an outside observer that Sweet Briar could have taken greater advantage of fundamental marketing principles and more effective student recruitment strategies as administrators considered this decision.
Only independent research, both quantitative and qualitative, can provide a true road map for success. It’s hard to know what kind of research the college had about students, parents and alumnae -- and how to attract their engagement and support. I do know that as recently as 2010, Forbes put the college near the top of a list of higher ed institutions facing financial problems, based primarily on successive years of operating loss. (The college’s PR man at the time dismissed the analysis as “selective and unscientific.") The numbers weren’t lying, and a five-year window is sufficient to explore a lot of alternatives.
Sweet Briar, and colleges like it, must accept what research is telling them. And then use every tool in the toolbox to improve appeal, value, reach and yield.
A number of colleges have been and are being successful in the market conditions Sweet Briar leadership articulated as those that required its closing. The Seven Sisters colleges remain highly selective, boast exceptional alumnae support and continue to invent their way into a vital future while maintaining, for the most part, their single-sex character. Many liberal arts colleges -- Grinnell and Kenyon spring immediately to mind, as do Bowdoin, Beloit and College of the Ozarks -- don’t let their rural locations inhibit their success.
But Sweet Briar came to the conclusion that the writing on the wall said, “Enough!” What data drove this decision? What futures were imagined -- and researched -- that led to an inescapable conclusion that closing was the only option? With the level of alumnae outrage -- signaled by more than $2 million in pledges as of this writing -- greater transparency around the data that drove the decision would benefit both the college and its stakeholders.
What research indicated that going coed was unfeasible?
Given the choice, would alumnae prefer that the college go coed or go out of business?
Were new majors and/or focus areas considered that would have built on Sweet Briar’s existing engineering program in order to increase its appeal to young women who wanted more “direct to market” degrees? What was the cost of developing those programs?
Could the college have sold part of its 3,250-acre campus in order to invest the proceeds of that sale in program development, scholarship support for female valedictorians and other high-potential students, or other repositioning programs?
Would a name change -- perhaps coupled with the development of coed options or new programs -- have triggered the kind of awareness and visibility that would give the college a near-term boost and strengthen its position in the marketplace?
A name change is no panacea, but it can bring attention to the authentic character of an institution whose name is problematic. A decade ago, our agency helped Western Maryland College (quick quiz: public or private? What part of the state?) change its name to McDaniel College. While there was some consternation at the time, the college’s board was able to document the need for the change based on 20 years of market research that showed clearly that the name was creating confusion in the marketplace, and make the courageous decision to rename the college. Renaming brought it new attention and gave the new McDaniel a platform to reassert its role as a quality private liberal arts college on the outskirts of Baltimore -- an extremely helpful outcome.
In another instance, Lipman Hearne was brought in to assess the name of an institution in the American Southwest and was able to document that its name was creating problems. In this case, the board had to balance the concerns of alumni -- who were resistant to the change -- and of prospective students, who expressed real confusion about the nature and character of the institution based on its “misdirection” name. The board chose not to change, and the institution must explain itself anew to a new crop of prospects to this day. While this may have been the right decision, it’s a costly one, in that recruitment and enrollment efforts have to start by saying, “No, we’re not that” before they can commence saying what they truly are.
Would a name change, by itself, have solved Sweet Briar’s problems? Probably not. But a name change coupled with a revisioning process, the development of new programs and/or institutional profile, a rebranding of the institution, and a commitment to transparency by volunteer and administrative leadership could have provided sufficient leeway for the college to redefine itself -- profitably -- into the future. Because whether they are for-profit or not, higher ed institutions must respond to market and business realities, and adapt accordingly.
Whatever Sweet Briar does going forward, it faces one transcendent imperative: do right by your students. They are experiencing a traumatic change at a time when they thought they'd be focused on their own futures and opportunities. If there’s room in the unrestricted endowment, or in scholarship endowment, use those funds to underwrite tuition and other costs through to graduation at the schools these young women choose to attend. In that way, the authentic brand identity of Sweet Briar -- a college that cares for the women it takes into its family -- will be sustained after the college’s passing.
Robert M. Moore is president and chief executive officer of Lipman Hearne.
The closing of Sweet Briar College will, I expect, have little impact on other small, private, rural colleges with small endowments. Most will keep their heads in the sand, live on in a state of denial and continue to produce strategic plans that say little more than “Hope.”
Time after time I have heard college presidents, vice presidents for finance and trustees claim, “We’ve had tough times before and we got through those; we’ll get through these.” The first time I heard this statement was in 1997; the president at Sue Bennett College in Kentucky made that grand pronouncement the day before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools notified him that none of the appeals to maintain accreditation of the college had been approved and federal funding would not be forthcoming -- money designated to pay faculty salaries for the last two months of the semester. Talk about spending the last dollar before you close.
Discussion on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's news podcast.
Still, the closing of Sweet Briar offers a guide to closing that deserves preservation in some just-in-case files. At least Sweet Briar avoided the disaster Sue Bennett faced when the college ran out of money in the middle of a semester.
Perhaps Sweet Briar learned some lessons from one example in my book Cautionary Tales: Strategy Lessons from Struggling Colleges (Stylus). The description of the 1997 closing of Saint Mary’s College in Raleigh, N.C., is remarkably similar to the 2015 closing of Sweet Briar. For almost a decade, the president and board at Saint Mary’s sought solutions to declining numbers of students and reluctance by donors to make financial contributions at levels that would sustain operations without strong enrollments. Finally, shortly before SACS was scheduled to visit and with freshman enrollment for the coming year lower than ever, the board agreed that closing was inevitable. Closing before the college lost accreditation and had to close was determined to be the best alternative for preserving the good reputation the college had maintained for over 100 years.
Just as at Saint Mary’s, there were no rumors at Sweet Briar about a possible closing. Yet there is reason (based on comments about studies conducted internally and by external consulting teams) to believe that the trustees at Sweet Briar spent a significant amount of time looking at data and considering various options before making the decision. One interesting piece of advice the president at Saint Mary’s offered to colleges considering closing was to develop a generous severance package for the president; otherwise he or she would spend years resisting efforts to close the college to avoid becoming unemployed. Perhaps Sweet Briar found a less expensive way to provide leadership during closing: hiring an interim president.
When the announcement at Sweet Briar came, it came -- as it had come at Saint Mary’s -- to students, faculty, alumnae and the press at about the same time of year, just before spring break.
What Saint Mary’s College had that Sweet Briar does not have was a preparatory school for high school students. Saint Mary’s opened as a school in 1834 and maintained those programs when it became a college in 1927. Many of the college faculty and staff could continue working at Saint Mary’s School after the college closed, and there were no issues about what to do with the endowment or property. Today the school offers one of the most prominent preparatory programs for girls in the nation. And those I talked with who had been critical of the decision to close the college in 1997 now call that decision “honest” and “correct” and “courageous” and “bold.” Unfortunately, not many small private liberal arts colleges have a prep school that can be energized by ending the higher education offerings.
What Sweet Briar has that Saint Mary’s College did not have is property to sell and a relatively strong endowment, some of which can be used to provide severance packages and scholarships and some of which might help the college find a way to continue to honor the traditions of Sweet Briar. Just before Barat College formally closed, the president there led a campaign to establish a modest foundation with some of the endowment funds and profit from the sale of the property; she then became the president of the foundation. Today, the Web site of the Barat Education Foundation indicates a mission of “continuing and adapting the heritage and legacy of Barat College to our 21st-century world.”
There is no reason I know that would keep Sweet Briar from doing something similar once all its financial commitments are met; the alumnae can then contribute to programs designed to perpetuate the mission of their alma mater. But this is only one suggestion for honoring the long history and admirable traditions of Sweet Briar.
One of the colleges I have written about is Wilson College, which in 1979 failed to do what Saint Mary’s and Sweet Briar have done. Once word got out that the board was considering closing Wilson while there was still money available in the endowment and well-maintained property that could be sold to provide severance packages and scholarships for students to attend other colleges, students and alumni and a judge up for re-election managed to prevent the closing with a legal ruling. Today that college is still struggling -- having discussions similar to those in 1979 and facing a time in the near future when a major debt of the college will come due. Alumnae and students are complaining about the college's switch to coeducation, and faculty and staff are adding programs to attract new students.
Deciding to close a college is difficult and every college has conditions and faces circumstances which make its decision-making process different from that at others. Sweet Briar complained about not having a Starbucks nearby. One college I worked with was 30 miles from the closest motel, yet it continues strong. Many rural colleges need to continue to exist because they are so isolated; their students come primarily from surrounding counties, probably would not go to college if there was not one near their homes and can avoid a life of poverty by obtaining a four-year degree.
William Bowen (who served as president at Princeton University and at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) wrote the foreword for my book Cautionary Tales. Here are his cautions for colleges under the threats of financial instability:
“Acknowledge problems and avoid an ‘in-denial’ existence.”
Do “not be too quick to extrapolate ‘good news,’ such as evidence of enrollment growth. Circumstances can change rapidly....”
Find not just a new direction; “...find a new direction that is sustainable.”
“Avoid ‘cures’ that are worse than the disease.”
Do not “rely too much on the charismatic leadership of one person -- who may leave, retire, die.”
Do not squander or impair (by borrowing unwisely) assets.
Do “not hesitate to celebrate what their college has achieved.... But no one should worship the past unduly.” Remember naturalist John Burroughs’s comment: “New times always. Old time we cannot keep.”
Do not be “forced to close” and lose “the capacity for wise choice."
Know that “‘death with dignity’ can be a good outcome.”
There may be no best way to close a college, but it is certain that following every college closing, there will be a lot of anguish. As the president of Saint Mary’s said, “The bitterness won’t end until the last alum dies.” But I wonder if all the mergers, sales of institutions, reducing numbers of faculty and staff, new online courses and graduate degrees, and “destroying the soul of the college” have really “saved” those colleges that have taken those routes to stay open -- if turning the keys of the campus over to someone else is really better than closing -- if sacrificing the quality and traditions of the college leaves the college but a shadow of itself.
Perhaps the most relevant question of all is the one asked by the editor of Change Magazine in 1979: “Is it, in fact, in the best ecological interests of higher education to have every marginal institution stay alive at any cost?”
Alice Brown, president emerita of the Appalachian College Association, lived on the campus of a small, private college for two years, directed a consortium of 37 similar colleges for over 25 years and has written about another dozen or so.
At the Education Writers Association’s conference in Nashville last year, higher education writers crowded into Scott Jaschik's session, "Top 10 Higher Education Stories You Should Be Covering This Year."
It's always a highlight. Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, does a quick rundown of emerging trends in higher education. Many of the year's selections were already in play, like campus sexual assault and the possibility of unionization of college athletes.
One seemed foreboding: Private colleges on the brink. Jaschik advised us to look for some small colleges to shut their doors.
I filed it away, thinking I might take a closer look at some of North Carolina's colleges.
I didn't dream he'd be talking about mine.
Sweet Briar College, a women's liberal arts college in central Virginia, announced Tuesday that it would close in August. Current students will have to transfer, and the board leaders will have to figure out what to do with 3,250 bucolic, rolling acres, including a gigantic indoor riding ring for Sweet Briar's nationally acclaimed equestrian program.
I attended Sweet Briar from 1981 to 1983 before transferring to my ultimate alma mater, the University of Virginia, from which I graduated in 1985.
At SBC, I made lifelong friends and received a rigorous education in an atmosphere of small classes where you couldn't hide. You were expected to do the work, speak out in class, think on your feet. Participate in the arts. Dive into science. Write. Analyze. Think.
The very idea that Sweet Briar could go under is simply stunning to me -- and to hundreds of angry alumnae storming Facebook right now. Yes, all women's colleges have challenges these days, and I knew that a few years back Sweet Briar considered going coed and decided against it.
But shutting down? This is a college with an $85 million endowment and a well-to-do alumnae base. This is a college where you met the daughters of Texas oil tycoons, and your dorm had a grand piano in the formal parlor. This is a college where some students brought their horses along, boarded them and wore jodhpurs to class. I am not kidding.
It was also a place that seemed to be in a bit of a time warp. Founded in 1901, Sweet Briar was, in a sense, a classic finishing school that had adapted to modern times. But even in the 1980s there were traditions that seemed quaint, odd or, frankly, rooted in a sexist society.
School colors were pink and green. The sports teams were called the Vixens (with a cute fox mascot). Seniors, and only seniors, wore black graduation robes on a daily basis as they strode to class. The robes were handed down, and it wasn’t unusual to have four or five names sewn inside. Of course, the robes were often festooned with obnoxious buttons and stickers, but it gave the place an air of Oxford or Cambridge to see all those academic garments about.
Sometimes, signs would appear in the dining hall announcing a "ring game" on the quad after lunch. Seniors would form a circle holding a ribbon from which dangled a diamond ring. The women would push the ring to the next student as it went by in a fast, hot-potato game. After the third go-round, one woman would pull out a pair of scissors, cut the ribbon and put the ring on her finger, to squeals of delight. This was how engagements were announced.
Fresh yogurt from the campus dairy farm was served daily. The Lester Lanin Orchestra played at formals, where the booze flowed among the tuxedo- and taffeta-clad guests. And groups from the surrounding men's colleges -- Washington and Lee, Hampden Sydney, Virginia Military Institute (only one of which, Hampden Sydney, is all male today) -- were only too happy to make the road trip to SBC to host parties at the rustic boathouse on the lake.
Besides the inevitable, sometimes silly, traditions that you get at a single-sex college, Sweet Briar was ahead of its time in academics. It was only the second women's college to offer engineering, and its study abroad program in France is one of the nation's oldest and most respected.
The college regularly brought impressive women to campus for speeches and mentoring opportunities. I remember seeing Jane Goodall there, and an alumna who was a top executive at the American Stock Exchange. They were women who made history and had messages for us.
Despite all of this, I felt I needed more than Sweet Briar could give. I had come from a small town and a high school class of just 61 students. I wanted the big university experience. U.Va., about an hour away, beckoned. I left Sweet Briar and didn't look back, except for attending the graduation of my friends.
Over the years, I guess, more and more students had similar feelings.
Sweet Briar was beautiful, yes, but its rural setting wasn't for everyone. The president made the point Tuesday: "We are 30 minutes from a Starbucks." And there's no denying that fewer women are choosing to attend a single-sex institution today. It was an uphill battle to increase applications, but Sweet Briar managed to do it during the past few years. However, fewer admitted students chose to enroll, and it took greater tuition discounts to lure them. Ultimately, a losing proposition, leaders said.
Still, the decision to close seems hasty -- four months ago, the college dedicated a renovated and expanded library. It was hiring staff up until three weeks ago, according to its Twitter feed. What's up with that?
Alumnae are begging to do something to save the college -- a valiant offer, but probably too late.
This scenario is likely to play out across the land, as some small liberal arts colleges collide with the reality of unsustainable tuition policies, lagging enrollment and weak endowments. More students want education in urban areas, where they are likely to find job opportunities and a hip social life. There are more students over 25 who want online options and flexibility. And liberal arts is taking a back seat to business and health care majors.
That's the way of the world.
Today, though, I'm sad.
This summer, I will attend my 30th reunion at U.Va. My Sweet Briar friends will attend theirs, too. But this will likely be their last.
Rosam quae meruit ferat -- she who has earned the rose may bear it. (Sweet Briar's motto.)
Jane Stancill writes about higher education for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.
The viability of women’s colleges is one of those evergreen topics in higher education that has again come to the forefront with the announcement that Sweet Briar College will be closing at the end of this academic year. I am saddened to learn of this decision. But I am convinced, after 15 years of experience leading women’s colleges, that the closing of one college does not portend the fall of others. Hollins University and Sweet Briar have historically been very different colleges, each with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities. The real question is: Do women’s colleges still play an important role in higher education?
Informed by scientific research and our own experiences, we know that each person learns differently; the learning environment and how one “fits” are keys to individual success. For many students today, a women’s college provides distinctive opportunities and is the right fit.
What do women’s colleges offer that is different than coeducational institutions? Women’s colleges help young women find their voices, learn how to “lean in,” and develop the confidence to push back against the challenges so many women face in the workplace and in life. They are places where women find the support and encouragement they need to take risks, push boundaries and succeed personally and professionally.
There are more obvious considerations as well. The tensions and expectations, biases and pressures found in the mix of male and female students on coeducational campuses are much less in evidence at women’s colleges. Research suggests, for example, that students at women’s colleges feel less pressure to engage in binge drinking and other negative behaviors associated with campus life. They often feel more empowered to set high expectations and work to achieve them in the absence of negative judgments by male peers. They also have higher participation rates in leadership positions and extracurricular activities and are less likely to make career decisions that steer them to female-dominated jobs.
This research is reinforced by the many accounts of both students and alumnae of women’s colleges about enhancing learning skills, building confidence and keeping the friendships made on campus well into their adult lives.
Further, many women’s colleges claim some of the most loyal, engaged and dedicated alumnae in the nation. At Hollins, we emphasize alumnae engagement in internship placement and career mentoring for students as we counter the old boys' network with our new women’s connections. Further, 11 percent of our entering students last year were referred by alumnae, and we are well on our way to reaching our goal of 300 alumnae-referred students in this academic year. Women’s college alumnae are incredible resources and many of them are ready, willing and able to help today’s students succeed in a world where women’s parity has not yet been achieved.
From large research institutions to small liberal arts colleges, private universities to state university systems, and community colleges to vocational schools, choice is the hallmark of our system of higher education. Each provides a meaningful opportunity for finding that crucial fit.
At Hollins and other women’s colleges across the country, we are providing an important option for young women at a time when more and more of them are looking for the best educational environment in which to prepare for a workplace where women are still not paid as well as men, where they are not represented as equally and where, still too often, they are treated as sexual objects. Thus, I am certain women’s colleges still have a vital role to play in educating and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders. And Hollins, with a strong endowment, no debt, a growing applicant pool, a highly credentialed faculty and an incredibly loyal alumnae body, is well positioned to provide such an education for many more years to come.
Nancy Gray is the president of Hollins University in Virginia.
I grew up in the era of remarkable college presidents, individuals who were seen as public intellectuals. These leaders -- Derek Bok, Kingman Brewster Jr., A. Bart Giamatti, the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh -- spoke out on issues that extended far beyond their campuses. As they saw it, contributing to the larger public conversation on critical issues of their time was part and parcel of their role both as college/university presidents and in the years thereafter. Voices like this are disappearing, a point made all the more relevant and poignant with the passing of Father Hesburgh last week at age 97. Today’s educational leaders are vacating the bully lectern -- even on issues related to their own campuses.
With the increased craziness in current events, the void in presidential voice has become increasingly obvious. But the need for it could not be greater. Think: terrorism, young people turning to lives of violence here and abroad, Ebola, cheating in a professional sport, gridlock in government, lack of trust in police, and the beheadings of journalists and relief workers, to name but a few of the issues before us. Where are the voices of presidents of institutions of higher learning who can provide some moral grounding or an intellectual compass?
What accounts for the silence? It is obviously not one reason. One powerful argument is that speaking out on national and international issues is not the role of college and university leaders in the 21st century. The job, instead, is to run a campus as an effective business, keeping our myriad of constituencies (like shareholders) happy.
Speaking out can alienate faculty or students or parents or trustees or community members. It can impair revenue generation. We need to mediate these differing perspectives, regularly smoothing feathers and finding balance among irreconcilable positions. For public institutions, we need to please politicians if we want institutional funding, if we want a workable board, if we want state grants for students.
Adding to all this is the impact of social media; it has transformed the consequences of our speaking out; our words get truncated into short sound bites; our positions take on a life of their own, with little opportunity to clarify or rectify or inform. And even when needed corrections are made, they are hardly noticed.
I get it. It is easier and safer to be silent. The job of a college/university president is hard enough without speaking up and out. We know that even when we speak out on issues related to our institutions, which some presidents are doing, we risk being subjected to considerable criticism (often nasty and mean-spirited) and even termination. And the heat is rising: legislation was just introduced in Kansas that seeks to bar professors (and one assumes presidents) from using the titles they hold at public institutions in any op-eds they write -- quite the silencing device.
Yet, as educational leaders turn inward, we are simultaneously teaching our students the value of multiple perspectives, the importance of rigorous but civil debate, the interrelationship of the disciplines that cannot and should not be cabined into silos in real life. We are encouraging them to deal with new people and new ideas, and encouraging experimentation and innovation and risk taking. We want our students to engage actively in the local community, literally feeling and understanding the value of serving others. We want them to see their obligations to the larger world -- voting, sorting through vast quantities of data in search for truth, among other things. With a degree, we preach, comes responsibility. We argue that problem solving and critical thinking are what we teach across the disciplines, educating the thoughtful leaders of tomorrow. We pay homage to Jefferson’s notion that our democracy depends on an educated populace.
But it’s ironic. As presidents and in our lives thereafter, we are being disingenuous. We are doing one thing and teaching another. We are not acting as role models for our students -- from the top down. What we ask of our students should be the minimum of that which we ask of ourselves. We challenge our students to become their best selves. This means that as presidents and leaders, we have to speak up and out on the critical issues of our day. We may not have some unique lock on wisdom, but we certainly do not have less insight than others who voice their views.
When I was a college president, I had a piece of art by Rachel Kerwin outside my door. Amid a swirl of black and gray and white, the word “SPEAK” appears dead center in capital letters. I always said this was to remind students, faculty and staff to share openly what was on their minds when they came into my office, something that is rarely easy. It also served another purpose: reminding me to speak out, no matter how hard or risky that is. It still does.
Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College.
“The time has come to make education through the 14th grade available in the same way that high school education is now available. This means tuition-free education should be available in public institutions to all youth for the traditional freshman and sophomore years or for the traditional two-year junior college course.”
Although it may sound similar, this statement was not uttered by President Obama. It was, in fact, a declaration made by the United States’ first national commission on higher education, the Truman Commission, in 1947.
Now, more than a half century later, President Obama has given new life to the Truman Commission’s vision with his plan to make “two years of college... as free and universal in America as high school is today.” The proposal, modeled in part on programs in Tennessee and Chicago, promises to use federal and state dollars to eliminate the costs associated with tuition and fees at community colleges for students who enroll at least part-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Though not as far-reaching at the Truman Commission’s plan, the Obama proposal aims to provide a debt-free route to a college education for all Americans willing to work for it.
The Truman Commission’s recommendations did not come to fruition for the same reason that Obama’s plan likely won’t: they faced a Republican Congress with little interest in supporting the president’s agenda or enacting large spending packages.
Still, historians agree that the commission’s bipartisan report -- and the debates it sparked -- changed the conversation about federal and state support for college access. It laid the foundation for the landmark Higher Education Act of 1965. And it prompted many state governments to move ahead with plans to expand public higher education, in particular by creating or enlarging community colleges, in the years after World War II. The same thing is happening today, as the news carries stories of free college plans being developed in Oregon, Mississippi, Minnesota, New Mexico and New York.
Much like the Obama administration, the 29 educational and civic leaders who served on the Truman Commission believed that Americans’ willingness to extend higher education opportunity to all would be the key to the nation’s economic and political future. They were part of a generation that had lived through two world wars and a devastating economic depression, and they were grappling with the frightening prospect of atomic warfare. Clearly framing higher education as a public good, the commission argued that an educated citizenry provided the best hope for preserving democratic freedom, achieving economic security and even promoting world peace.
Too many young people, the commission argued in 1947, faced barriers to higher education due to family income or geographic location, or on account of race, religion, sex or national origin. Since the 1930s, colleges, both public and private, had steadily increased tuition and fees, putting higher education out of reach for many families. Jewish students encountered admissions quotas at many private colleges, while African-Americans faced separate and unequal higher education in the segregated South. Such discrimination, the commission wrote, amounted to a “waste” of human talent. It was not only a blow to the United States’ image as a bastion of freedom and opportunity -- it was a threat to the national security.
At a time when the federal role in the nation’s education was minimal, the commission asked Washington to take the lead in assisting state and local governments to develop a nationwide network of tuition-free public colleges -- or “community colleges” -- within reach of every American. And although it recommended a range of federal aid programs, including a system of national scholarships and fellowships that could be used at any institution, public or private, the commission believed that access to higher education should be extended primarily through the public system. It was only in publicly controlled institutions, most members agreed, that fair treatment for racial and religious minorities could be assured and tuition and fees could be contained. Moreover, they hoped, the carrot of federal aid could also be used to encourage state governments in the South to end segregation in public colleges and universities.
The intense public debate over the commission’s recommendations demonstrated that the politics of federal aid to higher education were -- and still are -- complex. By the time the commission's report was released, the popularity of the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided tuition and cost-of-living assistance to returning veterans, was obvious to everyone, but the commission’s vision of expanding access to higher education to all Americans still proved a hard sell.
As with the debate over the Obama plan, critics found the devil in the details. The proposal was described as too expensive, unrealistic, and even undemocratic. With federal aid, some argued, would come unwelcome federal control. Others charged that the commission’s estimate of Americans’ intelligence was simply too high, or that the nation’s economy had room for only so many college graduates. In 1952, the report of the Commission on Financing Higher Education, a study financed by the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations and endorsed by leaders of private institutions, suggested that higher education should be for the nation’s elite students -- the top quarter of academic achievers -- and not for the masses. The Truman Commission, by comparison, asserted that nearly half the adult population could benefit from two years of postsecondary schooling and one-third from an “advanced liberal or specialized professional education” -- just about where we are as a nation today.
But perhaps the most blistering attack came from two of the commission’s own members, both of whom were leaders from Roman Catholic education. They argued that the commission’s exclusion of private colleges from the use of federal funds for current expenditures and capital outlays would lead to a “monopoly of tax funds for publicly controlled colleges and universities” -- a concern expressed in response to the Obama plan.
Many private institutions, they feared, could not compete with a free public sector. Small colleges would close, while a higher education landscape dominated by public institutions would be vulnerable to government control and propaganda, as in the “dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Japan.” Only the existence of private alternatives, free from government oversight, could assure the intellectual freedom that democracy needed to flourish. “American democracy,” they wrote, “will be best served if higher education in the future, as in the past, will continue to be regarded as a responsibility to be shared by public and private colleges and universities.”
Criticism of the Obama plan has followed similar contours. On the left, some worry that the money could be better targeted toward those who need it. On the right, others fear that a commitment to “free” public higher education is too great a fiscal burden to bear, or that a strong public sector will diminish “market” incentives. And, as was the case 60 years ago, commentators of various stripes have pointed out the obvious fact that the production of more college degrees, by itself, will not lead to better employment outcomes or alleviate social inequality.
These criticisms may have some merit, but they miss the larger point of the president’s forward-looking vision of college access. The members of the Truman Commission understood the value of making a powerful statement. During the commission’s second meeting, in December 1946, the philosopher Horace Kallen urged his colleagues to conceive of their report as a statement akin to the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
“We are starting,” he said, “as a deduction from the democratic position in the field of education, a certain conception of a standard of educational living. We can’t realize it all at once. Every step in the realization is going to be a fight, just as every step in the raising of the standard of living is going to be a fight.”
Indeed, in the spirit of the Truman Commission, the Obama plan renews the nation’s promise to provide educational opportunity to all who are willing to work for it. It serves as a reminder that education is not just a private benefit, open only to those who can afford it, but a public good worthy of investment. The promise of American higher education, after all, is about more than individual job preparation. It is about the possibility for all citizens to participate in envisioning and constructing a better society.
Nicholas Strohl is a Ph.D. candidate in history and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His dissertation is entitled “Higher Education and the Public Good: The Truman Commission and the Case for Universal College Access, 1918-1953.”