Nexus

I’m a College President. Go Ahead: Be Jealous

But Let Me Set the Record Straight On a Few Things

North Central College

For the past 21 years, I’ve been the president of a small 150-year-old private college of 3000 students. My wife and I live in the middle of the North Central College campus, in Naperville, Ill., in a big white house, to which 15 staff members have keys. While the privacy-invading characteristics of this life can occasionally get to you–e.g., when my salary gets published in the local paper (it’s on the Federal 990 form and the college’s website)–the truth is I have the best job in the world.

A small college president lives in a bubble, one in which students, alumni, the community, and even faculty treat him or her like someone really important. A title. He’s President So-and-So or, simply, “the president.” If he lives on campus, he never has to cut the lawn, shovel the walk, or fix the dishwasher. When he’s outside the bubble, nobody knows his name, but when he speaks to the local Rotary Club or an alumni group 1,000 miles away, he’s treated like a celebrity.

At the end this year, I’ll be turning over North Central’s presidency to my successor. It calls up all the range of feelings that you’d expect in someone leaving one era of his life for another. But it’s a good time to survey the landscape. A lot of what people think they know about my job and colleges like mine is off the mark–and I thought I’d address a few of the more common misimpressions.

Like every college president, I have to spend a lot of time raising money. Many people think this must be miserable and difficult–or that it takes time that could be better devoted to “important” things. Baloney. Funding is important, and fundraising success at a school that isn’t rich gives the president leverage to move the institution. Asking alumni and friends of the college for their support is a joy. Many of the school’s supporters become close friends.

Americans also have misconceptions about college tuition, not least because every year newspapers have scary headlines about it. People are outraged by the price hikes. In reality, though, at most colleges, the official price has no more relation to what you really pay than does the sticker price on a used car. Headline writers miss that the tuition increases are being paralleled by a skyrocketing growth of financial aid. At our school, the average net cost for new students, when you factor in financial aid and inflation, went down in a number of recent years.

Yes, years ago, some institutions seeking elite status employed a “Chivas Regal strategy” of raising tuition costs dramatically as a proxy for quality. In today’s marketplace, however, that strategy no longer makes sense. If your kid is talented enough to get into your state’s flagship university, he or she can probably attend a higher priced private college nearby at less net cost, thanks to merit aid. The full-tuition-paying student is a tiny minority on many small college campuses.

People often think that costs have risen because of simple bloat or greed–or “frills” like climbing walls in the recreation center. But the reasons are hardly so simple. Consider this: in the past quarter century, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of students who require some sort of medication, students who probably would not have gone to college in an earlier era. Some schools estimate that 15 percent or more of their students fall into this category. This says many good things about our society, but it’s expensive. So is the new regulatory and legal climate. “Student services staff,” who accommodate the special needs of students with learning disabilities, provide tighter supervision over residence halls, and fill in the space between the classroom and everything else that occurs on campus (and off), have increased significantly. Documentation and due process procedures in response to federal regulations and the threat of lawsuits have also become a cost of doing business. In short, colleges have to spend a lot of money to meet new expectations and, frankly, to avoid getting sued.

Let me turn to another misconception. When colleges talk about their commitment to diversity, what they mean, and what most people hear, is ethnic, economic or racial diversity. There’s nothing wrong with this–indeed, it is a commitment to be celebrated–but it can be a narrow kind of diversity, one made up of people who view the world in a similar way.

What about first-generation students? Evangelicals? Townies? Home-schooled students? Adult students? Or veterans? When Swarthmore College cut out football a few years ago, it wasn’t because these student-athletes weren’t bright enough (average SAT: 1,390). It was because they weren’t more similar in outlook to their hyper-intellectual classmates. I cite this example because, for small schools, athletics–and, particularly, football–are a crucial ingredient in fostering diversity and maintaining gender balance. Men are becoming a minority on many college campuses, but football can bring in 50 to 100 of them, frequently the first generation in their family to go to college. The same is true of others sports. Certainly, at age 18, many of these students may be more interested in athletics than in academics. In four years, though, their minds get a chance to catch up with their bodies.

In recent years, there’s also been much talk about “bad” colleges with high dropout rates. But a lot of that has to do with the fact that most colleges are not hard to get into. Harvard and Princeton have high rates of retention, but they also accept fewer than 10 percent of their applicants. The easiest way for other schools to improve retention to graduation would be to accept a lower percentage of applicants, weeding out more at-risk students. But most schools do not really have that choice, and, in any case, it’s not one that is helpful to society. As it is, 90 percent of American colleges and universities admit at least half of their applicants. Federal policy makers focusing on degree completion should ignore the elite schools and recognize that for many–if not most–institutions, transfers in and out may be a healthy fact of life in a free marketplace for higher education. What matters most is that a high proportion of admitted students graduate somewhere.

Finally, keep this in mind: if you want to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry, physics or medicine, your odds are much higher if you get your undergraduate degree from a liberal arts college rather than a research university. More than one-fifth of the Nobel Laureates in these fields over the past 20 years graduated from liberal arts colleges–way out of proportion to the number of liberal-arts college graduates–many of which are lesser-known schools such as Augsburg College and Lawrence University. Liberal arts colleges as a group produce twice as many science PhDs per graduate as baccalaureate institutions in general. The emphasis of foundations, corporations, and the federal government on funding graduate science programs ignores the seed-corn role of small colleges in keeping American science competitive.

The better we understand what colleges really do and what they really face, the wiser we’ll be about making education choices and policy. As for me, in my final year on the job, I have nothing to complain about–only a lot to savor: the cross-country runners who holler “Good morning, Hal” when I pick up the morning newspapers, the retired graduate who stops by spontaneously to chat about the football team, the faculty member who leaves a copy of her new book at my door, the woman at the Barnes and Noble who spots the college logo on my hat and tells me her daughter graduated from the College and “it changed her life.” Imagine moments like that continuing for the next ten hours, until you leave the theatre performance or the choir concert or the athletic contest or the community event that evening. The best job I could ever have.

Dr. Harold (Hal) R. Wilde, a native of Wisconsin and a graduate of Amherst College and Harvard University, will retire as president of North Central College at the end of 2012. He doesn’t tweet or have a Facebook account, but has three children who do, one of whom is married to Zócalo’s California editor. North Central College’s website is at www.northcentralcollege.edu.

*Photo courtesy of Tom Gill (lapstrake).