Ben Franklin criticized the elitism of higher education. He described Harvard as a finishing school where the rich learn obsolete skills and knowledge. What do you think Ben Franklin would make of the current debates about higher education?
Franklin probably would have had more sympathy for the anti-college groups today saying, “You don’t need colleges. Go off and learn stuff on your own. You want to be a programmer; you can do that on your own. You want to start a company, you can do that in all these other ways.” Someone with a lot of smarts and chutzpah who goes off and educates himself in his own way—Franklin would admire that. But he was also someone who found narrowness appalling. Someone like Peter Thiel, who is asking kids to leave college for a hundred thousand dollar fellowship, is encouraging them to become ever more narrow, so that they can develop an app to order pizza more quickly or access pornography more easily. All this talent driven into narrower and narrower spheres—Franklin would have found it depressing. Increasing specialization makes us less capable citizens and less able to adjust to changes in the marketplace. Many studies show students choose schools based on their selectivity, the prestige factor. And the vanity of prestige, just wanting to be better than someone else, he hated that.
Many kids in the freshman class at elite schools are from families in higher tax brackets. Are we still rewarding unearned privilege rather than merit?
I think this is a huge problem. A lot of the indices we use for admission favor the wealthy, but we are looking at changing that. We’d like not to favor people who have been trained through expensive classes to do well on testing day, but rather to find people with authentic potential. We try to spend a lot of time finding students who might not find us because they think we are too expensive. Often these students could come here for free and graduate with no loans and do just as well as someone who had all the advantages. We’re also trying to expand our reach with [online courses], and with this platform we’ve reached over 600,000 students in just a year and a half. In the previous hundred years we haven’t offered content to that many people.
Why should a student attend a brick-and-mortar school if they can get similar knowledge at a lower cost from online courses and other online resources?
I think it’s to work and live and play beside other people who are also going through a similar process of learning. Being surrounded by other students and professors who are engaged in research is a hothouse environment for expanding your cultural and intellectual horizons. I’m not naive enough to deny that people also like to be on residential campuses because they often have nice amenities. Taken to an extreme, that’s a real problem. Schools that are trying to entice students with swimming pools and rock bands, I hope they lose their customers. What they’re offering students is a taste of luxury before they have to start working. I think in the future more people will get online credit and certification before coming to a place like Wesleyan for a few semesters rather than four years. Multiplying access points is crucial as long as you’re providing access to a broadening rather than a narrowing of the mind.