April 10, 2012

Funder pressure

Universities too often end up in compromising positions in the search for donations.

One of the things that troubles me about the higher education system in the U.S. is that the interests of alumni seem to be at odds with those of undergraduates. Consider the admissions process: Every year, a lot of hand-wringing goes on over college admissions rates. When they rise, the administration gets called to task. For instance, The Daily Princetonian reported in 2009 that students and alumni were upset that their university’s admissions rate rose from 9.25 to 9.79 percent.

Practically speaking, I really don’t understand what the hullabaloo is about. How many people remember their class’s admissions rate down to the 10th’s place? I also doubt that an employer’s decision to hire you, or a graduate program’s decision to admit you, hinges on that small of a change in the admissions rate. Like the livestock in George Orwell’s Animal Farm who are told, “Four legs good, two legs bad!” we have been conditioned to think, “Lower admissions rate good, higher admissions rate bad!” For those who have graduated or are graduating soon, a lower admissions rate is usually viewed positively because it seems to validate their decision to attend their school. For the incoming classes, a lower admissions rate is a good sign if it is a reflection of expanded outreach to groups that have been overlooked in the past, improvements to quality of education and student life, and better financial aid. It is not such a good sign if it is a product of aggressive efforts to expand the applicant pool merely to one-up other universities.

In the wake of March Madness, now is also a good time to think about the place of sports in college. One of the justifications for devoting so many resources to college sports is that it strengthens alumni loyalty, which is often a euphemistic way of saying that it convinces graduates to donate more money. To a certain extent, I accept the reasoning that sports have a positive effect by providing entertainment as well as encouraging personal development and healthy habits. However, I think it’s antithetical to a college’s mission to recruit students who don’t plan to graduate. The NCAA championship–winning Kentucky team was criticized recently in the media because several of its players are so-called “one-and-dones” who intend to leave college after completing only their first year. From an educational standpoint, it would be frustrating to be in classes with people who have little stake in what they’re learning. Perhaps more importantly, from a resources standpoint, the NCAA reported in 2011 that 98 out of the 120 largest athletic programs in the country lost money the previous year, with half of those schools losing more than $10 million each. While the goal of college sports should not be to turn a profit, at least a few of those millions of dollars would be much better spent keeping the total cost of college down for other students. Of course, not everyone attends a school with sports teams that attract athletic prodigies and massive amounts of media attention. However, a lot of schools that are like this also happen to be flagship state universities that heavily influence the way people think about higher education. What happens at those schools matters to everyone.

Too often, it seems that colleges suffer a dilemma between doing what’s fair and doing what will garner more donations. D. H. Lawrence once wrote a short story called “The Rocking Horse Winner” about a fairly well-to-do family that was so anxious about status and money that it constantly heard the whisper, “There must be more money! There must be more money!” Perhaps administrators hear the same whisper. A critical source of money is alumni donations, which fund scholarships, buildings, student activities, and more. However, certain kinds of projects tend to attract more interest than others. It’s a lot more appealing to help raise a building with your name on it than to quietly fund pedagogical development or, say, pay to keep the plumbing in good working order.

In the mid-20th century, alumni at elite institutions tried to use their influence to stand in the way of progress. The composition of such universities has changed dramatically from the ‘60s and ‘70s; more women, public school graduates, lower-income students, and racial minorities are now admitted. However, the changes did not always come smoothly. In the 1960s, Yale University began to accept more public school–attending and Jewish applicants, which led to lower admission rates for legacy applicants and for students from its traditional feeder private schools. Many alumni protested these changes, but, fortunately, the president of the University did not back down. While universities ought to cultivate ties with their alumni, it seems that Yale’s president knew where to draw the line. However, other schools might not always demonstrate the same foresight.

You may be wondering how the issues I have raised are relevant to our school. After all, we have yet to panic about—or even really experience—incremental changes in admissions rates and yields. We’re the school that once got rid of its football team to focus on academics. However, at the risk of sounding like a hipster, I’ve noticed that a lot of people nowadays want to make the U of C more mainstream. While I’m not the kind of person who thinks that is intrinsically condemnable, I am concerned that the University might make itself more susceptible to the same kinds of pressure currently exerted on its peer institutions.

Jane Huang is a second-year in the College.