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Let College Leaders, Not Outside Parties, Lead

Editorial in the July 5, 2002, edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

“Angela” is a Hispanic first-generation college student from the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, located along the border with Mexico. An outstanding student in high school, she is well qualified to matriculate at Southwestern University, a private institution in Georgetown, Tex., where I serve as president.

Southwestern and Angela are a wonderful match. She is seeking an independent, broad-based liberal-arts education, which would normally be out of her financial reach. Southwestern has a proven record of graduating Hispanic students-75 percent of those enrolled over the past 15 years have graduated-and a historic commitment to provide student aid to those from low-income backgrounds. In 2001, Hispanic students at Southwestern received more than $1-million in financial aid, or almost 15 percent of our funds.

In fact, Angela would not be able to attend Southwestern, her first-choice college, without our financial support. Her success in high school-she was in the top 2 percent of her class, earned a 1240 on the SAT, and was highly involved in extracurricular activities-warrants a merit scholarship, in addition to the substantial university resources we make available to low-income students. Those include significant endowment earnings, which subsidize nearly half of the actual cost of a student’s education at Southwestern and grant dollars to make enrollment possible.

That’s the mission that my peers at other liberal-arts colleges and I embrace each year: to ensure that students from low-income backgrounds have access to educational experiences that meet their specific needs. In my region, we have the added challenge of trying to do that for minority students, following the 1996 federal court ruling in Hopwood that banned the use of racial preferences in college admissions. Making possible a young person’s dream of attending college requires focus, human and financial resources, and follow-through. Anything that impedes those efforts is a distraction.

Thus, I was surprised and somewhat frustrated to read the report that the Lumina Foundation for Education released several months ago, “Unequal Opportunity: Disparities in College Access Among the 50 States.” The report, which ranks more than 2, 800 colleges by how selective and affordable they are for many students from low-income families, concludes that almost all private colleges are either too selective or too costly for such students.

Unfortunately, based on my review, the report gives somewhat short shrift to the substantial financial-aid commitment made by many private colleges and universities, as well as the success rates of low-income students-particularly those who are first generation or from underrepresented groups. What is most damaging is that, by declaring that the majority of institutions are not accessible, the report sends an inaccurate message to bright students, such as Angela, and their families-possibly discouraging them from even applying to the colleges of their choice. Moreover, it fuels negative media coverage that puts higher-education institutions on the defensive, so that we end up wasting countless hours of administrative staff time on developing responses.

Yet the Lumina report is indicative of a far larger issue, one that should concern all of us in higher education much more than the report itself. In fact, the report is just one more example of what occurs far too frequently these days: Higher education is allowing third parties, often with agendas of their own, to frame the national conversation about higher education.

As a college president for more than a decade, I have attended my share of educational association meetings specifically designed for those of us who lead higher-education institutions. The programs for such meetings reflect the missions of the associations, as well as professional-development needs expressed by presidents. Increasingly, however, too many conversations at such events have focused on the latest crisis regarding some study, media survey, or announcement that a third party has foisted on higher education and the general public. Whether it is the Lumina Foundation’s misguided affordability study or the U.S. News &World Report rankings, American higher education and its leaders often seem to be in a reactive mode.

I, for one, have had enough. We in higher education-especially those of us who lead it-should set the context and tone of the discussion about our institutions and their activities.

Organizations such as the American Council on Education, the Annapolis Group, the Associated Colleges of the South, the Council of Independent Colleges, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and others produce accurate and reliable research on the most pressing needs in higher education. They have explored a wide range of issues: access, affordability, class size, and diversity, to name just a few. For instance, NAICU has conducted ongoing research about what a variety of private institutions have done to contain costs and ensure affordability and accessibility for students, no matter what their circumstances.

If we in higher education pride ourselves on learning, teaching, and service, we should do a better job of informing the nation about the broad, critical issues, such as affordability, access, and diversity, by publishing and disseminating reliable research that illuminates rather than denigrates. One successful example is the “College is Possible” campaign that ACE initiated several years ago. More than 1,000 colleges and 20 higher education associations worked together to help educate the public about the availability of financial aid.

Indeed, it is the responsibility of individual college presidents to carry credible information forward to the local and regional level. We need to move beyond what increasingly are more than minor distractions, such as the Lumina report, so that we can spend more time on the priorities of our individual institutions and on higher education’s most pressing needs. We should each play a role in educating the public about how, as an incredibly diverse collection of educational institutions, we contribute to and are responsible to society-in ways not always noted by organizations outside the education sector.

I want to attend national gatherings of college leaders where our discussions and actions focus on subjects such as helping needy students like Angela, rather than reports about our institutions from those outside academe. We, as presidents, should be setting the context for the national conversation about higher education.