Hey, Profs, Come Back to Earth

By Steven Roy Goodman

Sunday, April 10, 2005; Outlook, Page B01 — College admissions decisions now arriving across the country by e-mail and snail mail are generating the annual excitement they always do. But that momentary thrill is only masking a new reality about college in America.

With faculty and administrations leading the way, political correctness and posturing — from both the left and right — is reaching dizzying heights in the land of the ivory tower. And rising right along with it is the frustration of middle-class parents, who are growing increasingly resentful of paying sky-high tuition for colleges they see offering their kids a menu of questionable courses and politically absurd campus climates that detract from the quality of a university education.

Here are a few snapshots of what’s been happening on campuses in the last six months that has many parents I know up in arms:

Duke University found itself in a crossfire after voluntarily hosting an anti-Israel group’s annual national conference. The president of Columbia University had to appoint a commission to look into student charges that certain professors, with whose views on the Middle East conflict the students disagreed, were attempting to indoctrinate and intimidate them. Hamilton College issued a speaking invitation to a University of Colorado professor who had written an essay arguing that the 9/11 attacks were a justified reaction to U.S. policies abroad. And locally, a ruckus broke out at George Mason University after it invited filmmaker Michael Moore to campus — and then disinvited him after receiving political pressure from Virginia lawmakers to cancel the speech.

Colleges have long been hotbeds of political agitation, of course. But where it was once students who did the acting out, as they spread their intellectual and philosophical wings, now the professors and administrators are more likely to be playing politics — and more and more Americans with college-age kids are getting fed up with it. In 18 years of in-the-trenches experience counseling kids on their college choices, I’ve never seen the unhappiness as widespread as it is today. If colleges don’t tone down the politics, and figure out how to control ballooning costs, they run the risk of turning off enough American consumers that many campuses could marginalize themselves right out of existence.

Colleges are having an ever-harder time making what they do comprehensible to the families footing the bills. I counsel families of all political stripes — liberal, conservative and in-between — and varied income levels, but they all agree on one thing: the overly politicized atmosphere on campuses is distracting colleges from providing a solid education to our young people.

Yes, I do get some students who expressly wish to apply to either a liberal or a conservative college. But the vast majority are simply eager to find a school that will help them advance in their intellectual and professional lives. They’re flabbergasted by courses with titles like “Pornography and Evolution,” “The Beatles Era,” or “Introduction to Material Culture,” as well as educational values that appear only tangentially related to the reality of their lives.

As a consultant, I feel the need to advise my clients to cover all their political bases. Recently, I was advising an Eagle Scout who was justifiably proud of his accomplishment and wanted to highlight it on his college applications. But I worried that the national Boy Scouts’ stand against homosexuals as scout leaders might somehow count against him in the admissions process at some schools. So I suggested that he get involved in an AIDS hotline to show his sensitivity to an issue often linked to the gay community.

The need for this kind of double-thinking is good for my consulting practice, but I find it troubling. Yet trying to anticipate potential concerns about my students’ backgrounds or qualifications is something I increasingly feel I have to do.

When I started counseling in the 1980s, many of my students told me that nothing but an Ivy League school would do for them. Now, many aren’t sure that the Ivies — where the political battles on campus are fiercest — are worth the money. Last year, one of my students chose Lehigh over Columbia. It wasn’t just that Lehigh offered him a full scholarship; he also thought the craziness of campus politics and the divisiveness at Columbia would distract the faculty and administration and hinder him in his goal of getting a solid education.

This year, the mother of one of my students reacted so negatively to the controversy at Columbia that she encouraged her daughter to apply early decision to the University of Virginia. She told me she felt that if the university was brushing intimidation by professors under the rug, then they must also lie about the crime rate on campus.

A couple of weeks ago, a father called reacting to the fallout from the anti-Israel conference at Duke. He asked me outright whether Duke was anti-Semitic. I jokingly assured him that the school wasn’t being run by the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, he decided that if his son really wanted to go there, the boy could find a way to pay the $30,720-a-year tuition himself.

A large part of the alienation I’m seeing stems from the widening economic disparity between the middle class and the universities. While the median income for a family of four is just a little over $62,000, middle-class families are regularly expected to come up with nearly $200,000 per child for four years of college. And tuition rates keep soaring. Brown University’s yearly tuition, which was an already-hefty $14,375 in 1989, reached $30,672 last year.

Loans are now 70 percent of financial aid packages, making college an increasingly sour deal for students, who are saddled with debt once they graduate. Meanwhile, 321 colleges and universities are sitting on endowments of $100 million or more, and scores of university presidents earn in excess of $400,000 a year.

One middle-class mother from Baltimore recently asked me if universities value anything other than raising money and squirreling away multi-million-dollar endowments. She was frustrated that she and her husband would need to retire five years later than they had planned because of the cost of their son’s education at Northwestern University.

Some universities use financial aid as a way to compete for the most desirable students. Kids get the message that money talks at these campuses. One of my clients just chose Syracuse University — not because of the educational quality, but because the high tuition there at least has a tradeoff. “They will help you get a job afterwards,” he said.

Over-the-top professors and enthusiastic development officers with insatiable appetites for more funds will probably always be with us. But the sheer number of outlandish political controversies at universities across the country, coupled with escalating fees, is alienating parents from the very institutions they have been supporting through tax and tuition dollars.

I’m not arguing that universities should teach only engineering, business and computer science. Liberal arts courses, taught in the context of free speech, have always helped open young minds to the excitement of the marketplace of ideas and to the value of even unpopular opinions. But that tradition seems to have been stood on its head. There is a world of difference between challenging students to think more broadly and trying to shoehorn them into a more narrow spectrum of thought, which many parents feel is happening.

To many consumers of higher education, colleges have lost their way and have strayed outside the mainstream. And the backlash is upon us. State governments, strapped for cash, see higher education as one place to cut costs; the U.S. House of Representatives considered legislation to rein in tuition in 2003; and there is now an advocacy group in Washington, College Parents of America, that lobbies for the increased involvement of parents in university communities.

Even loyal alumni are pushing back — in part, I believe, because of recent professor-led campus political battles. The national percentage of alumni donating to their alma maters has declined for three years in a row and is now below 13 percent.

Our top universities were once widely respected — not resented — by the middle class. In 1902, Woodrow Wilson began his public career when he was inaugurated as Princeton’s president. Fast forward to 2002, when the Princeton admissions staff was caught hacking into Yale’s admissions database to gain a marketing edge.

Maybe we can learn from recent campus incidents. Maybe we can ask ourselves what we would like our universities to actually do. Maybe university communities can engage in real soul-searching to figure out how they can benefit both their students and the country in ways that the broader public can support.

If they don’t at least try, the university as an institution may have seen the heyday of its influence.

Steve Goodman is a Washington-based educational consultant who advises college-bound students and their families in the United States and abroad.

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