Elite Colleges Should Avoid Elitism

The current admissions scandal is a reminder of the dangers of elitism in higher education that assumes limited role for nonelite institutions, writes Seamus Carey.

March 15, 2019
Transylvania University

The federal investigation exposing illegal scams to gain admission to elite colleges is troubling on many levels. For one, it is a reminder that many families regard colleges as luxury brands to be purchased for validation and to advance their personal brand rather than place for transformative intellectual and personal development. Students and their families in search of the substantive values of education and not just status can avoid the competitive admissions frenzy by casting a wider net to consider nonelite colleges. In doing so, they will find gems in their backyards.

Unfortunately, even experts who want to improve access to quality higher education sometimes unintentionally reinforce the myth that only a certain subset of elite colleges offer students a quality education and a promising future. In a recent address, Catharine Bond Hill, president of Ithaka S+R and former president of Vassar College, proposed that elite private colleges should accept more students. In her estimation, increasing access to these colleges would better serve the public good by letting “more students benefit from the resources of the wealthiest colleges -- not just their endowments and their physical assets, but their academic programs and alumni networks.” Increased access, according to this line of thinking, shifts the focus from the good of individual institutions to the good of society, a value central to liberal arts education.

Hill acknowledges that increasing the size of the student body may diminish the prestige of these institutions by diminishing “the amount of endowment per student.” It may also affect their “ability to compete with other institutions on quality.” It follows that more students on campus would affect campus climate and culture.

Hill appropriately recognizes the responsibility of higher education to contribute to public good in conjunction with our interest in maximizing the well-being of our institutions. Her solution, however, may perpetuate the problem she is trying to fix. Bringing more students interested in liberal arts institutions to a select few colleges diminishes the pool of students available to nonelite private liberal arts colleges. Some of these institutions perform extremely well with a fraction of the resources of elite colleges. A small dip in their enrollment could be devastating to the colleges and their local communities.

The call for elite colleges to accept more students implies that these colleges are the only ones capable of providing an excellent liberal arts education. Those of us who work at nonelite private colleges and universities know otherwise. In fact, nonelite private liberal arts colleges often have a bigger impact. Most students at elite colleges are highly credentialed, driven and bright. Those accepted on merit would likely succeed regardless of the school they attend. Students at nonelite colleges often have the same potential for development, but they may lack the experiences of students at elite colleges.

Transylvania University, my institution, is a good example of a highly effective nonelite college. Ninety-eight percent of our graduates who apply are accepted to medical school and law school. Those schools include Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Brown and Duke Universities. The student loan default rate among our graduates is 2 percent. Like our elite colleagues, we provide personalized education with a 10.5-to-one student-faculty ratio. Yet our tuition and fees amount to approximately $20,000 less than the elite privates. While the average endowment at the top 10 liberal arts colleges is $1.36 billion, ours is approximately $170 million. Between 2007 and 2017 the average endowment per student among the top 10 liberal arts colleges increased from $654,414 to $810,433. We could operate four of our colleges off the interest of a Williams or Amherst College endowment. Over the past 10 years, the top 25 liberal arts colleges have increased their net revenue by approximately 30 percent. Most of this increase is attributable to the interest on their endowments. Over the same time period, with a fraction of their endowment, we also have seen a 30 percent increase in net revenue. Hence, the assumption that students can only get an elite education at an elite school or that elite colleges are managed more effectively is misguided.

While Hill is prepared to sacrifice educational quality at elite colleges for the sake of the public good, she seems to dismiss nonelite colleges, which are often pillars of their communities. We have been in Lexington, Ky., for 240 years. Our surrounding neighborhood is among the poorest in the nation. Our employees use their wages to support their families and generate economic activity in the community. Our students integrate learning into tens of thousands of volunteer hours at organizations that serve those in our community who are struggling, such as the homeless and abused women. We hold college-prep programs for underresourced high school students and host the YMCA Black Achievers program on campus. We distribute fresh food to residents who live in a nearby food desert and provide tutoring to elementary school children.

In the interest of the public good, we should want more high-performing liberal arts colleges, not fewer. The reallocation we need is not more students at fewer colleges, but more support for highly functioning nonelite colleges. It has been demonstrated that there is no correlation between the prestige of a university and what a student learns, their happiness at college or how satisfied they are with their life after graduation. Therefore, higher education needs to stop promoting elitism in a world where wealthy parents are accused of breaking the law to get their children into elite colleges.

We are fortunate. We have a generous donor base, and our leading donors happen to be graduates of elite colleges. They choose to support us because they recognize the importance of what we do for our students and for our community. They understand that their gifts to us have a much bigger impact than yet another donation to the bloated endowments of their alma maters. Instead of flooding elite colleges with more students and diminishing the pool of students who can attend excellent nonelite colleges, we should educate the public about the substantive goods of higher education. This would lay the groundwork to expand upon the insight of our lead donors to create partnerships among elite colleges and qualified nonelite colleges to ensure the flourishing of both. In this way, all of the highly functioning colleges continue to educate students effectively while serving the broader public good.

As a graduate of Hill’s former school, I know that my fellow alumni are passionate about our alma mater. We are also passionate about contributing to the public good. By harnessing this passion, we can build support for liberal arts education beyond our individual institutions, many of which have more resources than they can use well. Like our lead donors, we should encourage support for highly functioning, geographically diverse liberal arts colleges that fulfill the same mission as elite colleges. The alternative is to see excellent nonelite colleges threatened with extinction -- and the communities they serve threatened with blight.

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Seamus Carey is the president of Transylvania University.


Seamus Carey

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