Notes from the College Search

Spent Friday with the Good Wife and Sixteen visiting a private liberal arts college in Spokane, Washington—not the one with the very good Division 1 basketball team. The one with a very good Division 3 basketball team.

My main objective was not to embarrass Second Born by not saying or doing anything to bring myself attention. I was doing really well until mid-day. Early on we learned about the “Three Littles” that every student strives to accomplish. . . 1) get hit by a frisbee; 2) accidentally break a dish in the cafeteria; and 3) catch a “virgin” pine cone—meaning one that hasn’t hit the ground. In the middle of the campus tour, I faked catching a pine cone by droping to the rear, picking one up of the ground, then exclaiming to a few peeps around me, “Look, I did it. I caught a virgin pine cone.” Turned out more than a few people heard. Everyone liked my head fake except Golden Locks.

Thought one. A prediction. Higher education, like every other institution, is changing and will continue to change. However, the pace of change will be slower than the “experts” anticipate. Online “education”, or the cynic in me prefers, “internet coursework”, will continue to challenge the traditional “brick and mortar” model of schooling. Hybrid programs will become more common. But based on Friday’s sample of one, private, read pricey, residential liberal arts education is alive and well. “Spokane” University is thriving despite a relatively small endowment. It’s becoming more selective, it’s improving its already nice facilities, and it feels like there is a lot of positive momentum.

Thought two. A paradox. Many private liberal arts colleges offer financial aid packages that average 30-40% of the tuition and room and board “list price”. This coupled with Washington State’s public universities having to increase tuition 15% annually into the foreseeable future, means many families of high achieving students will find privates more affordable going forward. “Spokane” University has four merit-based scholarship tiers. The higher your grade point average and SAT or ACT score, the greater your financial aid. The second tier is a 3.7 and 1880 on the SAT if I remember correctly. That’s worth something like $15,000 each year. Any high schooler planning on going to college should think long and hard about taking any part-time job that might negatively impact their grades. You’d have to scoop ice-cream part-time at Baskin Robins for five years to make $15,000.

Thought three. Confirmation of a core belief. I believe economic anxiety explains most behavior these days. Especially, but not exclusively, middle and upper middle class parents of K-12 students. One of the day’s events was a panel discussion with four “Spokane” University students answering questions. Of the dozen or so questions asked during the hour, eleven were asked by parents. The only explanation I could think of for that was deep seated anxiety about their children’s futures. I wanted to tell the lady with red hair, who asked a few different questions, to “shut the hell up,” but I had already embarrassed TSwift once. Incredibly aggravating. Free parenting advice—at least try letting your son, who looked like a grown man to me, find his own way.

I took one picture. No, not of the beavers I saw on my run along the edge of the over flowing Spokane River, not of the baby ducklings, and not of the loquacious woman with red hair.

Dig the smart mix-use design

Finally, most importantly, make sure whatever college you decide to attend has plexiglass backboards.

The Christian College Conundrum

Second Born wants to go to a college where she can enjoy Christian community and deepen her faith. At sixteen she’s not very political, but she’s left-leaning probably because her mom and dad are libs. She also wants to go to a college with a solid academic reputation.

The rub is most explicitly Christian colleges have theologically conservative evangelical roots which lead them to take decidedly conservative positions on pressing contemporary issues upon which reasonable people disagree. For example, here’s an excerpt from Wheaton College’s “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose” originally penned in 1924:

WE BELIEVE that God has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ; and that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.

Wheaton, Billy Graham’s alma mater, is opposed to homosexuality. Recently apparently, some Wheaton alumni and students have organized to challenge the college’s position on homosexuality and support gay and lesbian students and alum. Here’s their OneWheaton letter of protest. Worth noting, it doesn’t appear as if they’re an officially recognized group and it’s unclear how much attention the administration has paid to them.

Any college that squelches open-ended inquiry compromises their academic reputation. For example, many biologists believe people’s sexual orientations are in large part genetically determined. Any self-respecting science program would pose it as a question to be investigated—Is one’s sexual orientation genetically determined? When the institution declares homosexuality is wrong, they’re stifling inquiry, crippling their science program, and compromising their academic reputation more generally.

Sorry Azusa Pacific Admissions peeps, after I reflected on this with Second Born a few nights ago she decided to cancel her visit. I told her she’d probably get a better education at a school that prioritizes inquiry and creates an environment in which conservative and liberal points of view are freely expressed. One where all students’ voices—whether conservative or liberal; straight or gay; religious, areligious, or antireligious—are encouraged, protected, and respected.

While not explicitly Christian, some outstanding colleges value and encourage religious life including Goshen and Earlham. Many ELCA Lutheran universities emphasize social-justice and embrace more moderate or liberal expressions of Christianity. And of course there’s the Jesuits who have a reputation for melding their social justice oriented Catholicism with very good academics.

Moral of the story, any student seeking opportunities to grow spiritually and intellectually should make sure whatever religious-based institution they’re considering acknowledges the complexity and ambiguity of the modern world and prioritizes open-ended inquiry.

Choosing a College 4

In his “Choosing a College 3” comment, Dean was spot on in playing up the “real world” juice that’s often present at community colleges.

My teaching career has evolved to where I mostly teach at the graduate level. I like it a lot in large part because the students—many of whom are parents, retired military, former business people—bring so much to the table. The lack of “nontraditional” students is definitely an opportunity cost of attending a highly selective liberal arts college.

In simplest terms, Dean was describing the value of “age diversity,” and by extension, “life experience diversity.”

In my experience, even the most happy undergraduate students sometimes grow weary of spending nearly all of their time with people their age.

Of course there are ways for traditional undergrads to break out of their narrow age/life experience band. One simple inexpensive way to broaden one’s worldview is to read a daily newspaper. I could be wrong, but my sense is VERY few undergrads do that. Watching Jon Stewart doesn’t count.

Here are three other ways to broaden and deepen one’s college experience.

• do an internship or two in the community

• instead of joining a campus-based religious group, commit to a religious community off-campus

• study abroad

Choosing a College 1

My daughter, known as A or 16, is beginning her college search. This is the first of several posts on how to choose a college. I do not want to make A’s decision for her, I simply want to share one insider’s perspective and stimulate her thinking.

Suggestion one: compare and contrast general education programs and choose a school with a thematic, interdisciplinary oriented general education program. Ask yourself, “Is the logic of the general education program self apparent and engaging?” And ask people at the college, “Does the sum of the general education sequence equal more than the individual parts?”

Five, six winters ago, two friends and I headed to a telemarking ski clinic. Free the heel, free the mind.

Friend one is a doc, a general practitioner. Friend two is a scientist who leads Washington State’s response team whenever there’s an oil spill or other type of accident that has serious ecological consequences. His team works with the groups responsible for the accident to restore the damaged area to it’s original state.

On the way home, One reflected on the limits of his medical education. Specifically, he wish he had learned how to run a business since that had proven to be the most difficult aspect of creating a thriving clinic. Two regretted being dependent upon an anthropologist who helped his team interact more thoughtfully with native groups every time their land was threatened by oil spills and other accidents. He wished there had been a little anthropology somewhere within his doctoral science program.

Now I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret. Some of my colleagues, let’s call them the “militant liberal artists” believe strongly that academics must reject any and all references to business model thinking. If you were to ask them, doesn’t a faculty that charges $100 to $200k for four years have some responsibility to equip graduates with skills that will enable them to earn a livable wage, they’d say, not really.  They’d point out that the economy is in constant flux and the purpose of a liberal education is to think deeply about the human condition, to question the status quo, to develop self understanding, to self actualize. Let the job market take care of itself and let technical colleges focus on marketable skills.

Economics department and business school faculty tend to think very differently about the purposes of higher education which can make for depressing faculty meetings. The business model folks, let’s call them “the utilitarians”, tend to think about higher education as an investment that should pay tangible dividends including a good job, health care, and material well being.

One philosopher of ed captures the different orientations of the “militant liberal artists” and the “utilitarians” by distinguishing between “education for being” and “education for having.” Getting faculty with wildly contrasting orientations to agree on general education requirements is exceedingly difficult because the MLA’s (pun intended) believe literature, art, music, religion, history, philosophy, and languages are most important while the U’s emphasize math, the sciences, economics, and business.

In large part, that philosophical divide explains why so many general education programs lack coherence and fail to inspire. Most people don’t understand that they are compromises. Keep some modicum of faculty peace, take one of these, two of those, and one of these. Students mindlessly check off each requirement as they go and the sum rarely equals more than the parts.

When it comes to undergraduate education, I’m more MLA in orientation; when it comes to graduate education, I’m more sympathetic to the U’s.  

A higher education is not a mutual fund; consequently, I’m not terribly concerned with whether undergraduate students and their families feel they receive an adequate monetary return for their investment. In my view, the more important question is whether graduates have sufficient interdisciplinary knowledge, skills, and sensibilities to make a positive difference in their communities. 

What would happen if the MLA’s and the U’s made nice and designed a general education program in response to One’s and Two’s questions: How does one provide quality medical care in an economically viable way? And how does one protect ecologically sensitive environments in culturally sensitive ways? The answer to one is by melding science and business, and to two, by melding science, humanities, and social science content.

The gen ed status quo requires students to take eight separate requirements in five, six different areas, but in those programs faculty typically don’t even read one another’s syllabi so students are left to themselves to connect dots between courses.

So A, if your goal is to graduate with the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities to improve the actual quality of life of people, seek a school with a thoughtfully designed, engaging, thematic, interdisciplinary general education program.