The Market for Freshmen
THE American public still thinks of our colleges and universities as besieged by applicants for whom there is no room, just as was the case immediately after the war. In truth, however, the rush to the colleges seems to be over. Many of our big state and city universities, required by law to accept all high-school graduates regardless of other qualifications, and charging little or no tuition, are embarrassed with masses of students they cannot assimilate. The small colleges, however, for the most part are earnestly and even frantically searching for recruits. In some of them enrollment has fallen off so as seriously to impair income. According to Dean Walters of Swarthmorc, nearly half the small colleges — those with less than a thousand students — have had actual decreases in enrollment during the past two years, in spite of their vigorous recruiting. In many institutions the high hopes of raising the standards of college entrance which were entertained a few years ago have gone glimmering, and the practice now is to maintain enrollment by accepting all regulation highschool graduates who apply.
Everyone recognizes that a great institution seldom can be built on such policies, and our colleges are searching for some opportunity for selection which will ensure a higher quality of applicants. They have discovered no new solution to the problem, but they are finding a ‘ bigger and better’ use for the old institution of scholarships.
Scholarships originated in a desire to help good students of small financial resources to get the benefits of higher education. The element of competition between colleges was but slightly in evidence at first, and, although there were always a certain number of disappointments, yet this form of aid made possible a college education for many a well-qualified boy or girl.
With the present intensive and increasing drive for students, scholarship funds are applied to the virtual purchase of students on a competitive basis in the open market. Both large and small institutions are raising funds to enable them to compete successfully in this bidding.
A few cases will illustrate. A prospective freshman, son of a prosperous professional man, applied for admission to the college of his first choice, and was accepted; shortly afterward another college offered him a scholarship of five hundred dollars a year for four years, and he promptly accepted the offer. A college president sought and received a gift to ‘improve standards of scholarship’; he used it almost solely to offer scholarships to students who otherwise would not have attended his institution.
High-school seniors are becoming aware of this competition, and admissions offices receive letters which say, in substance: ‘Blank College will pay me three hundred dollars a year to go there. What do you offer?’ More often it is the high-school principal, looking after the interests of his students, who makes the approaches for them. Repeatedly he writes, in effect, ‘ Provide scholarships, or my better students will be advised to go elsewhere.’
Scholarships are not always used to promote scholarship. With the publication of the Carnegie Foundation report on college athletics, we have definite evidence of what was generally known before — that in many cases neither of the original purposes of scholarships has been much regarded, and that often they go to students who are not outstanding in academic work or especially in need of financial help. Too often the sole claim to excellence is on the athletic field.
Up to the present, financial competition for students of high scholarship has not been extremely serious, although some colleges which claim to have exceptional opportunity to choose students are paying approximately a third of all tuitions from scholarship funds. With the rapidly increasing recognition that quality of the student body can largely make or unmake an institution, there is a rapid acceleration of drives for scholarship funds, and of competition for students on a money basis.
The result of this course will be that many students will be drawn to an institution primarily because scholarship funds are available, giving only secondary consideration to the quality of the work of the college or to the degree to which it meets the particular student’s needs. No blind drift of events will cure this tendency. Only an intelligent policy can ensure that good work will bring good students.
The writer wishes to suggest such a policy. In providing scholarship funds for higher education, he would suggest the establishment of one or more scholarship trusts to receive and disburse such funds. These might be administered partly through the college and university accrediting associations.
The relative quality of applicants for scholarships and their relative financial needs could be determined by representatives of the trust funds, and the scholarships could be issued in recognition of ability and accomplishment in scholarship and qualities of character. Thereupon a prospective student, or a student already in college, receiving a scholarship, would be free to use his funds in any reputable institution of his own choice, provided, of course, that he met its requirements for admission.
If such a régime should become general, colleges and universities would be immediately concerned more acutely than ever with the quality of their work, and their resources would be used for improving that quality rather than for active competition with each other in buying students. One of the evils to which the Carnegie Foundation report has recently directed our attention would be met, since the competitive recruiting of athletes by means of scholarships would be forced out into the open. For a star athlete to hold a ‘closed’ scholarship would immediately be a suspicious circumstance.
It is not to be expected that colleges and universities amply provided with funds for scholarship competition will quickly relinquish them to be administered by such trusts and rely solely upon the quality of their work to bring them students. If the trust policy should be established, however, persons or foundations interested in providing education for pupils of high promise, rather than in subsidizing pupils to go to a certain college, would prefer to contribute to such trusts rather than to individual institutions, and this would tend steadily to strengthen institutions doing good work.
Many benefits would accrue from central administration and unified control of scholarship funds, while the autonomy of the several colleges in selecting students for character, initiative, and other intangible qualities, according to their own standards, would be in no wise interfered with. It would be a very wholesome provision that a student must have been accepted for college entrance before applying for a scholarship. This would tend to remove undue influence in the administration of such funds. Nothing in the trust idea implies that donors may not restrict scholarships to particular classes of students or for particular objectives, provided that the student is free to choose his college. A student who had partly completed his college course, and who wished to complete it at the same institution, should be privileged to apply for a scholarship in the same way as the student about to enter college.
With many institutions a prospect of the adoption of such a policy would arouse grave misgivings. A number of distinct and sometimes conflicting tendencies would be manifest in its operation. Many Americans accept size as being an authentic indication of quality, and with the freedom of motion provided by general scholarships they would flock to the larger universities. Small colleges might suffer in this drift unless they had established claims to excellence. Yet regard for small colleges runs deep in the minds of the old American stock, and the better institutions of that type probably would be in greater demand than they had been formerly.
Some of our large city and state universities, as well as semi-endowed institutions in large cities, are attended largely because they are inexpensive.
If scholarships were not restricted as to location, and especially if the tuition charged should represent the whole cost of education, attendance at some of these institutions would shrink, and be confined largely to mediocre students living in the immediate vicinity.
Objection to this régime would come from several sources. Certain sectarian institutions are distinctively centres of indoctrination in a religious outlook. Not only would they often lose by freedom of motion, but they would deplore the loosening of special religious commitments which that freedom would tend to bring about. Other institutions would fear the change because of a general uncertainty as to the results. Still others, conscious that the quality of their work would not bear scrutiny, would make every possible effort to avoid exposure of their condition.
No self-respecting institution wants to hold its students because they are unable to go elsewhere. A good institution will welcome freedom of choice for students and will trust to the merits of its work for its survival and growth.
There is a further development of this principle which, the writer believes, would be a great advance in educational policy. Our state universities are democratic institutions in that they accept all standard high-school graduates and charge almost no tuition. A student’s year at a state university may cost the institution $400, of which the state may pay $300 and the student or his parent $100.
This programme, however, is not so democratic as it seems. The student has other expenses besides tuition, such as board, books, and travel, which, with the small tuition, amount to perhaps $800. In effect, the state says to the high-school graduate: ‘If you have $800 a year, or $3200 for a four-year course, to invest in a college education, we will match it with $1200 of public funds. If you cannot raise that money, the state will not help you.’
A young man or woman with no serious purpose, but with financial backing, is helped by the state to four years at a country club, while, so far as the state is concerned, the young man or woman without funds, but with a serious purpose, is under a very severe handicap. Would it not be better for the state university to charge a tuition representing the entire cost of education, and then to use the state appropriation for the university to provide competitive scholarships for students of quality — scholarships which would pay all tuition and perhaps help in meeting living expenses?
Such scholarships should be good, not only at the state university, but at any reputable institution of the student’s choice, either in or out of the state. By this method the stale would immediately come into a competition in excellence, and not a competition in expenditures, with other institutions; for absence of quality soon would become evident.
As for mediocre but well-to-do students who attend state universities because it is the thing to do, let them pay the entire cost of their education. Society makes a bad investment in paying its funds for them to the exclusion of those of earnest purpose. Our present system of providing college education at less than cost, as President Aydelotte of Swarthmore has pointed out, has the result that students who are amply able to pay for their education are, in fact, recipients of public or semi-public charity.
The system we suggest is not so unprecedented as it might seem. In fact, it is now in operation in England. Unable to supply a college education to every aspirant, the government provides public scholarships for the best, with the result that these scholarship students are setting a stiff pace for their wealthy classmates.
Much of our overproduction of mediocre college students is simply bad educational management. For every student in an American college or university, there are two or three others of college age and of equal ability outside. There are not too many students in college, but many of the wrong ones are there. If all of the right kind of students were in college, the same number could be in attendance, and the quality be equal to that of the top half of the present college population. For both endowed colleges and state institutions, the scholarship policies described would improve the quality of the student body and give the student much greater freedom in choosing his or her Alma Mater. This would very greatly stimulate institutions of higher education to more excellent work.
The public may be more nearly ready for this change than college administrators suspect. Some years ago the writer was repeatedly warned that a college could not survive if it did not give athletics their conventional
prominence. The institution he represents completely ignored these warnings, and discovered that the public was eager for a college to come forward which would put athletics in their proper place. Similarly, he was frequently warned that an institution which puts none of its funds into scholarships, but everything into the quality of its work, would be hopelessly handicapped. Here the problem is more difficult, for financial help often is imperative; but it has been discovered that there is a large American public with which cost is not the controlling consideration in higher education. Given anything like an equal chance, the institution which builds on the quality of its work, and not upon restricted subsidies, will win out.
Large sums are being provided to ensure to young men and women the advantages of higher education. As now used, these funds lead to active competition in buying students in the market. On the student’s part the funds available often determine the choice of college. Those giving funds for scholarship should administer them so that the student will have freedom of choice and so that their use will stimulate educational excellence in our colleges and universities.