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The demise of my alma mater?

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I just read that my alma mater, Cornell College, is going to basically double the size of their enrollment (from 1,100 to 2,000 students).  I meet this news with great disappointment.  I don’t know if this post is really a philosophy post or more of me just venting, probably a bit of both.  My wife (also an alum) and I talked about it, but I was not done venting.  Thanks for indulging me (particularly since students at this school of some 25,000 probably see my complaint about tiny Cornell College getting too big as bizarre).

I understand one of the arguments for the growth.  Colleges are fixed-cost businesses.  A library costs $X to run and maintain, and costs $X whether you have 1100 or 2000 students.  But, obviously, in the latter case that same $X is spread out over many more students and tuition dollars.  In lean times, I can understand the attraction of this sort of financial argument.

I am considerably less moved by the other argument coming from the Cornell College administration.  The other argument they are making concerns recruiting.  Studies apparently show that high school students are less and less interested in going to small colleges.  Apparently only 8% of all college-bound students are interested in a college with fewer than 2000 students.

That may be, but I am always unmoved by arguments from what graduating high school seniors want because I am generally against student-led curricular choices and thinking about students as “consumers” who colleges need to satisfy.  To my mind, what matters is not what incoming students desire.  Rather, what matters is what outgoing students desire.  High school seniors generally do not know what is good for them, do not know what it means to get an education, and do not know what environment is best for getting an education.  So don’t shape your college’s identity around what high school seniors say they want.

But, one might reply, you have to have sufficient enrollment to impact these students.  If you are not giving high school seniors what they want, they won’t apply and Cornell College will cease to exist.  But Cornell College is not suffering from a shortage of applicants.  While only 8% of students might be interested in a college as small as Cornell, Cornell has 4000 applicants a year for only about 300 spots.  That is extremely competitive.  Also, I am not sure Cornell should be looking at the entire class of college-bound students as a measure of what they should be.  After all, the vast majority of college-bound students are (a) not able to get into Cornell to begin with, (b) not interested in a liberal arts education, and (c) not able to afford Cornell College (currently about $41,000 a year).  So Cornell College is going to be targeted by a small demographic of students.  It is something like a top 75 national liberal arts college in the country, so it is competing against the Grinnell Colleges, Colorado Colleges, Colbys, Puget Sounds, etc of the world.  The student market for those schools still seems sufficient.

To me it is like a fine winery looking at a study that shows that most wine buyers are uninterested in buying a bottle of wine that costs more than $40.  That might be true, but so long as there are sufficient numbers willing to buy $100 bottles, you can still make them and sell them.  It does not appear that Cornell is suffering from low interest (number of applicants has risen consistently over the last 10 years).

All of that said, I am not privy to the inside financial pressures Cornell College faces.  It is difficult in times like these – endowments are down so you cannot maintain the same levels of subsidies for tuition.  This can put but downward pressure on the quality of incoming students because you need students capable of paying full or nearly full tuition.  Perhaps the financial situation is such that this move is inevitable.  Still, I wonder about making identity changing decisions in a time of financial crisis.  Assuming the college can survive as it is (and there is no indication that it cannot; Cornell is not one of those schools teetering on bankruptcy), why not wait until the storm passes?

But here is what really bothers me.  The first thing that came into my head when I saw the enrollment increase was, ‘The college is going to move toward pre-professional programs and away from the liberal arts identity’.  When I went to Cornell College, there was none of that.  Pure liberal arts, no business major, engineering, environmental studies, none of that sort of a thing.  Everyone got a very broad liberal arts eduction, and you majored in philosophy, English, history, psychology, fine arts, etc.

So I went to the website and was very disappointed to see that they have already headed down that road.  They have already added a bunch of pre-professional programs — business, dentistry, nursing, social work, engineering, environmental management, law, etc.  How vulgar!

In all seriousness, I am torn on this.  On the one hand, these programs can be good if the school maintains a very serious dedication to the liberal arts.  After all, we need more liberal arts minded bankers and doctors, etc.

However, these programs seem to invariably travel with a weakening of the liberal arts culture and curriculum (see the general trend of higher ed toward vocational education).  Once you add the pre-professional programs, I think the culture of the institution changes.  Why?  Because the curriculum shapes student attitudes.  If you have students already coming in planning on a specific profession and going for that program, the liberal arts attitude among students (even if the core remains the same) will change.  Over time, the liberal arts start to look like boxes on a check list, “requirements” that have to be fulfilled instead of the meat and strong beer of real education.

This is not how it was when I went to Cornell.  Most of us went not knowing what we wanted to be or do.  What we wanted was to become genuinely educated persons.  And guess what?  I don’t hear a lot of alumni harping about high unemployment rates among Cornell grads because of some lack of job training at school.  As best as I can tell, people coming out of Cornell College (and top tier liberal arts colleges generally) tend to do pretty well for themselves.  We have bankers and doctors, businessman and policymakers, professors and PR experts.  You don’t need to go pre-professional to prepare people for those jobs.  So why add them?  Because some focus group of high schoolers suggested they want to get a job right out of college and so want vocational training?!  GROSS!

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1 Comment

  1. Jon Adams says:

    Ah, that’s a real shame.

    Like

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