At St. Olaf

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Yesterday I spent some time sitting in Northfield Minnesota in front of the Chapel and Commons of St. Olaf College. It was about a four and a half hour drive from Bemidji (and then back) to pick up my son Gio, who had been at a music camp there this past week. The campus is on a hilltop at the edge of town -- although not too far out, since I just heard a train horn at a crossing near the Malt-O-Meal factory. Carleton College, the other school in this town, is right up against downtown.

Yes, there are two pretty well-regarded private Liberal Arts colleges in this town of fewer than 21,000 people. This one, Olaf, sits on a hilltop and feels a bit separated from the rest of the world. I walked a couple of miles, circling around the campus a couple of times and zigzagging across all its paths. It reminded me a bit of Hogwarts, although for that matter, in spite of being much closer to downtown, Carleton has a pond and an island with a little meditator's labyrinth.

Admission to both these colleges is very competitive and once admitted students' families can expect to pay a "family contribution" of at least $25,000. My son will not be going to either of these, although he has done summer programs at each. Instead, he will be attending the largest university in the state system for which I work. Will he receive a different education at a state university? Probably. Will it be one that is more in line with his interdisciplinary interests? I hope so.

These questions remind me of the issues currently faced by Higher Ed. What are we doing? For whom? And will it make a difference to our students lives? The answers to questions like these are on a lot of people's minds right now, because they appear to be changing. The
All-In podcasters this week argued about the effects of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Affirmative Action in college admissions. The “besties” (as they call themselves) tended to focus on admissions to elite schools such as Harvard and Stanford, although there was at least a mention of "all public institutions that take government money." I think Chamath said (I was listening on my drive down so I didn't see who said it) that there was a sense among some advocates that racial quotas were designed to right the wrongs of American history, but only for a time. Whether they have achieved the original goals of leveling the playing field is sure to be debated. But an interesting data point in this debate is that many of the people who agitated for this change were Asian students who felt they were being discriminated against; denied places despite having top credentials.

Another big issue that arose in the
All-In Podcast discussion was legacy enrollment. This is granting spots to the mediocre children of alumni. Although I generally agreed with the speakers that this should be prevented, it also reminded me that in the case of many elite institutions, educational credentials may not really be the whole point. Because educational achievement isn't the whole point. A big part of it is access to a community. The dumb son of a Harvard alum or big donor may actually have better "prospects" of joining the ranks of the plutocracy than the most brilliant minority student, and attending the school will introduce him to the people with whom he’ll be running the world in 25 years. I'd also question the value of adding diverse faces to the class picture of the next generation of plutocrats. Shouldn't we be trying to reduce the outsized role of this group on ruling supposedly-democratic America, rather than jostling for spots in the photo?

In any case, I wonder about the role of institutions like this one, where I was sitting in partial shade in a quiet quad, waiting for a concert to begin. It certainly isn't identical to either Harvard or the state university, and that may be an important point. Higher Ed is big and has many functions in our society. I think the part of it to which I contribute (preparing students to live and work in a complex society) is more valuable than socializing the children of elites. But even this is changing, as we reimagine what type of world we think we're trying to prepare these students to live and work in.