Responses to Hill’s “Beyond Supply and Demand”

April 30, 2011

Day before yesterday I posted a comment on Catherine Hill’s essay on “Beyond Supply and Demand” in Inside Higher Education.  I’m also enjoying and appreciating comments from two others, Wick Sloane, who teaches at Bunker Hill Community College and whose work I’ve admired before, and Charlotte Pressler.   Here are their comments:

From Wick Sloane:

President Hill’s analysis is thoughtful and reasoned and sensible for the market segment she describes — the self-described most highly selective institutions.I offer some points for rumination to move the discussion along.1.) Add up all the undergraduate seats at these self-described most highly selective institutions, the Ivies, Vassar, Harvey Mudd and all. Depending on where you draw the line, these eminent institutions account for about 100,000 of the undergraduate seats in the nation. Whatever pricing these institutions choose, however huge the effect on this group of institutions, has little effect on the the other 10 million or so undergraduates. We, the people, have a lot of work to do for those not at the institutions in the market segment President Hill decides.

2.) Then, recognizing that I speak from a windowless basement community college classroom, this statement in President Hill’s essay leaves me a bit queezy:

“An important outcome of this is that the most talented students, as defined by these selective institutions, have the most spent on their educations. And, with significant resources allocated to financial aid and a commitment to diversity, this includes talented students from all different backgrounds, certainly more so than in the past. If talented students benefit the most from large investments in their education, then this may be optimal.”

Well, my students are talented, too, and we, the people, have never tried spending $80,000 a year on them. What’s better for the nation —

a.) the incremental spending on a talented students with a truckload of AP credits at Vassar or Williams or

b.)the incremental spending that would give my community college students, with jobs and families, even half the academic opportunity a self-described most highly selected freshman has already had?

3.) Any pricing questions addressed from a national policy issue need, too, a look at whether government policies affect the operating costs underlying the pricing. We need to remember that federal tax policies on endowments and donations create a subsidy per student, not per student on financial aid, of $20,000 – $30,000 or more at most of the self-described most highly selective.

My students are lucky, with the byzantine small print, to receive a full Pell Grant, the major federal aid for the poor. That’s about $5,000.

I’ll settle for any pricing the self-described most highly selectives want as long as they’ll join me in making sure that federal aid to all students is equal.

Vassar, I am happy to point out, has a superb summer program, Exploring Transfer. This brings 40 community college students to Vassar for a five week two course/six-credit program. Free. Many of my students have benefited from this great program.

The challenge for we, the people, remains: Education for all the talented students who are not at these selective schools, whatever their pricing.

From Charlotte Pressler:

As you all remember, you can make a queen bee out of any worker bee; you just have to feed her royal jelly. Apparently natural differences can be produced in human beings by analogous means.

Students whose parents can afford to invest large sums in their early educations will know more and perform better at graduation from high school than students whose parents cannot. If that weren’t so, a guaranteed slot at a prestigious Manhattan preschool could never have been used as as a Wall Street bribe.

Students whose parents can provide them with the “cultural capital” needed to make a success of highly selective educational institutions will do much better than students whose parents can not. If that weren’t so, first-generation college students would not struggle with the unspoken rules of higher education and fewer of them would fail or drop out.

Students who attend independent schools that carefully groom their charges for college admissions will do much better at getting themselves admitted to selective colleges than students who attend overcrowded public high schools with one counselor per every 400 students. If intensive counseling did not confer an advantage, parents would not hire consultants to ensure their children’s admission to highly selective colleges.

But all these things — and more — do confer an advantage, and money can buy all of them. And so it turns out, time and again, as if by magic, that the “most talented” students are overwhelmingly those whose parents can afford to pay Vassar tuition.

The heartbreak of it is, of course, that they really do perform much better than most, but that’s because they’ve been fed the academic equivalent of royal jelly.

Still, if I could be assured that the parents of these future Vassar alumni had made their money doing something a hair less damaging to the future of their nation than marketing credit default swaps or offshoring manufacturing jobs, I might be content — but that’s hardly likely to be the case these days.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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