Archive for the ‘Swarthmore’ Category

U. of Delaware's state-of-the-art Visitors' Center

I belong to a Yale class of ’75 listserv, and recently, in addition to planning for our 35th reunion (starts the day after tomorrow!), there has been a lively discussion about the seemingly shocking rise in the cost of college: a year at Yale cost about $5,000 in our day, and $50,000 now. Since I have papers to grade and there is no better motivation than procrastination, I offer some comments on the subject—with the understanding that they are purely based on personal experience and observation, not on any knowledge of the economics of higher ed, the economics of pricing, or the economics of anything. So here they randomly are.

1.  My personal inflationary landmarks (aka the things whose prices I remember and are basically the same product over time) are the newsstand price of the New York Times (ten cents in 1971; $2 now) and the price of a ride on the N.Y. subway (thirty cents in ’71; $2 now). So the change in the cost of a year at Yale ($5,000-$50,000) is roughly in keeping  with those commodities.

2. At Yale (which Maria attends), Swarthmore (where Gigi works), the U. of Delaware (where I work), and Vassar (from which Lizy just graduated), and presumably most other major colleges and universities, if you divide the annual cost of running the school and educating the students by the number of students, you come up with a figure that is more, and in some cases far more, than the sticker price of tuition (much less the amount that the average student actually pays, once financial aid is factored in). At Yale and Swarthmore, my sense is that tuition accounts for something in the area of half the cost, with the rest coming from endowment income. At Delaware, which gets funding from the state (though it isn’t technically a state school), tuition accounts for roughly 40 percent of the budget. The relevance of this is that even if costs were substantially reduced (athletic programs cut, professors made to teach five classes year-round, tenure eliminated, thermostats set at 65 in the winter, etc.), tuition still wouldn’t cover them, so tuition would not go down.

3. When I chat with my Delaware students, I often ask them why they chose to come here. The most common answer (often eerily expressed in exactly the same words) is, “I fell in love with the campus.” That makes sense. It was a nice setting to begin with, but in the eighteen years I’ve been teaching there the place has been transformed, with a lot of new buildings, extensive renovations to all the old buildings, and every cement sidewalk torn up and replaced with a brick path. From looking at dozens of colleges with my two children, I know that UD is not alone in spending so much on physical plant. The centerpiece of virtually every tour we took was the “state of the art” gym (a state-of-the-art library was rarely on display). My sense is that all colleges, even the Yales and Swarthmores, realize they are in a battle for students with their peer institutions, and amenities and the appearance of luxury is one of the most important things they can sell, if not the most important. This has nothing to do with education, obviously, and it costs a lot of money, also obviously.

4. When we went to my daughter Lizy’s graduation over the weekend, we were very gratified to bring with us my 95-year-old mother-in-law, Marge Simeone. She is in fine fettle, but isn’t quite as nimble as she used to be, so we rented a wheelchair for her. On graduation day, the second—and I mean the second—we got to the outdoor amphitheatre where commencement was to take place, we were greeted by a friendly, extremely competent woman wearing a nametag stating her name and “Office of Disability Affairs” (or words to that effect). She very clearly explained all the options for seating, and access to and exit from same, and made it clear that she and her colleagues would do everything they could to make sure we comfortably enjoyed the ceremonies.

My reason for sharing this touching anecdote? The friendly woman was part of the administrative superstructure some of you have alluded to and which, indeed, has relatively recently sprung up and multiplied at U.S. colleges. So, in fact, is Gigi. She and her half-time assistant spend their time helping Swarthmore students (and alumni) get into medical school and law school. None of these jobs existed thirty-five years ago, and they cost a lot of money to staff and run. Should they be gotten rid of?

One of my Yale classmates, Chris Edwards, talked about the sort of nanny-state RA system he experienced when he fairly recently went to BU to get an advanced degree. Again, this whole structure (often called “Residence Life”) postdates our college experience and is a presence to some extent on all campuses. Gigi  in fact used to work in this field (at the Universities of New Hampshire and Pennsylvania), so I have some familiarity in how it works, essentially, to address and develop the non-academic side of students. This quest can sometimes seem a little foolish, as Chris observed. But its has a sort of noble bottom line, which is, as I see it, to support who more than likely wouldn’t have made it through (or been damaged by) the Darwinian sink-or-swim college ethos of past decades: people in wheelchairs, the non-wealthy, those on some kind of emotional precipice, those that society seems to think are marginal or different, and so forth. People with a handicap, or at least without a head start.

The sink-or-swim mentality had a kind of attractive intellectual purity to it, and was a whole lot cheaper. But there is no going back. And even if there were, I’m not sure I would want to.

And now I really have to grade those papers.



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Today’s NY Times has an article about Princeton’s attempts over the past few years to reverse its grade inflation. It seems that their efforts have been pretty successful; nearly half the grades given in 2004 were in the A-range, and now it’s less than 40%. The students are hopping mad, and I don’t blame them.

At Swarthmore, students pride themselves — and are furious about — our purported lack of grade inflation.  They feel they are at a competitive disadvantage when competing for medical and law school seats against students at the “easy Ivies.”  They have the hope, perhaps even the expectation, that admissions officers will equate a Swarthmore C with a Harvard A, and will make decisions accordingly. (I met with a student recently who hoped that medical schools would not hold his F in chemistry against him, because, after all, it’s Swarthmore.)

I have no way of knowing, truly, how Swarthmore’s grading stands up against other comparable schools. If I had to guess, I would imagine that graduate schools realize that applicants from Swarthmore, Princeton and others have performed academically at a very high level, even if their actual GPAs are a little lower than their typical norm for accepted students. Beyond that, I’d be surprised if they were making distinctions within this group of top schools.

Now back to Princeton, and their stated desire to “deflate” grades.  Here they travel the world over, literally, to recruit the brightest, most accomplished, most motivated students. These kids really, really know how to do school. So why the surprise that they end up performing very well? Why impose artificial limits in evaluating and rewarding their work?

One more thing – a Princeton student in the Times article complains  about competing with students from Yale, apparently one of the “easy Ivies” in his view. Maria, what do you think?


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Out of the darkness come six beats of wood against metal. Eight more progressively louder beats and the stage lights come on, revealing 13 percussionists and dancers. Philippe Celestin stands in the middle, dressed in the sweatpants he wears to soccer practice, powerfully drumming on two overturned trash cans. The capacity crowd erupts.

Philippe Celestin gathers the ball with his left foot in full stride. At full speed, he makes two touches with his right foot. He throws his whole body to the left and with his right foot quickly taps the ball to the right. One hard strike and the ball rockets into the back of the net. The capacity crowd erupts.

Phillppe, whose father is a native of Haiti, grew up with two passions: soccer and dance. He went to college at an elite liberal arts institution that allowed him to pursue both at a high level.

But then the inevitable happened.

His soccer team had an NCAA tournament game scheduled … at the same time as a stomp performance! What do to do? His teammates depended on him, yet the demands of art were just as strong.

Wait—didn’t I already see this movie, only instead of stomp it was ballet and instead of soccer it was, I don’t know, video games or something? Indeed it is an eternal myth, evoked in “The Jazz Singer,” where Al Jolson had to choose between sacred songs and hot jazz, and Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy,” where the poor Italian-American youth could please his parents by playing the violin or pursue his own prizefighting passion?

Who could forget "Don't Forget 127th Street"?

(By the way, one of the great cultural experiences of my youth was seeing the Broadway musical version of “GB,” starring Sammy Davis Jr., with a book by Odets and William Gibson, and with a great score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, post “Bye Bye Birdie.” Free advice to any producer looking for a musical to revive: revive this one, and put Fiddy Cent in the lead.)

But back to Philippe’s story. The thing is, it’s not a story–it’s real, Philippe Celestin is a junior midfielder at Swarthmore College, and the top two paragraphs are from an article about him in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Here is some video of him doing his thangs, which he sees as hardly contradictory but all of a piece. The Inquirer reporter, Sam Lacy, writes:

At early father-son practice sessions, Flaubert Celestin taught his son to dance up and down the field, shaking his hips and moving his whole body with every step. “He taught me to move fluidly and to embrace the rhythm of the game,” Philippe Celestin said.

Which path did Philippe choose this past Friday night? Loyalty to his teammates, or to his muse? I’m not telling—if you want to find out, you’ll have to read the Inquirer article. The only thing I’ll say is (and I’m sure Gigi will agree): Only at Swarthmore.


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Yesterday’s New York Times had an article about why the cost of college rises, even in a recession.  It mentions things like faculty productivity, administrative growth, and the difficulty of cutting out anything, once it’s been established. I often hear friends with college-age kids express outrage at the very high prices they’re asked to pay, as  if the colleges were somehow taking advantage of a captive market, and I always want to say, “OK, what would you like to cut?”

Would it be the brand new science center, with high-end lab equipment that is absolutely essential to teaching science today? Would it be the security features that all colleges have installed to some degree? (When I began working at Penn in 1979, the dormitories were wide open during the daytime and the security program was to encourage the students to confront sketchy people they saw strolling around the hallways. When I left in 1996, we had 24-hour guards at each entrance, with cameras, card swipes, panic buttons, and alarm cords in all public bathrooms.  Surely people realize that this stuff doesn’t come free!) And what about technology – when I was at Penn 20 years ago, we spent millions of dollars on a multi-year project to bring internet, phone, and cable tv “to every pillow” in the dormitories. In retrospect, with cell phones and wireless, I don’t even know if it’s used anymore, but at the time, it was cutting edge and essential.

In my own very intensive touring with two high school daughters, I noted we were always shown a fancy new fitness center, filled with students. Is that what should be cut?  And they all took the dining experience very seriously. When I was in school, we had two choices for dinner – the main entree or last night’s leftovers.  No allowance was made for special diets based on philosophy, religion, or allergies. I don’t remember any vegetarians, but I suppose they would have been expected to eat peanut butter or iceberg lettuce most nights.  Now, of course, there are many flexible eating options and schedules, with local produce, many choices and everyone’s needs accommodated. It’s the new normal; no one would stand for anything less.

I get personally offended at the idea that it’s the “administrative creep” that’s the cause of college being more expensive, as if the bureaucracy grows for its own sake. My own job is probably an example of that in some eyes. After all, most people my age don’t recall having a pre-med/pre-law advisor when they were in school; perhaps a biology professor did it on the side. But I have 600 students, plus a few hundred alumni, who are constantly in touch with me for advice about requirements, application processes, or just anxiety about whether or not they’ll get in. If your child is pre-med, do you really want to close my office down? The Career Services office next door is really hopping – with a snazzy website with thousands of resources, a constant stream of corporate and non-profit recruiters, individual consultations, and even workshops on proper etiquette and table manners. When I was a student, career development was a small metal box filled with index cards with open jobs. Do you really want your child’s college to go back to those days?  Every college puts great effort (and money) into academic support services, with reading and writing centers, tutoring, and  assistance for students with learning differences. Over the past thirty years, every college has expanded its services for emotional support, too. Do we really want to go back to the days of sink or swim?

Most of the things we look for, and expect, in a college are expensive. And like with taxes, we all pay for stuff we don’t use or care about, and in exchange, everyone contributes to the stuff we do.  I am happy to contribute a bit to Vassar’s lacrosse team, as long as everyone pays a bit to support the student experimental theater program. I am happy to pay to support Yale’s disability services, not just in principle, but because my daughter suddenly needed them last week when she sprained her ankle and had to be carted around campus. Nobody’s getting rich in the college business. It’s just that the needs, the wants, and the expectations just keep getting bigger and bigger.


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