For centuries, universities have advanced humanity toward truth. Professor Jonathan Haidt speaks to why college campuses are suddenly heading in the opposite direction.
- In a lecture at UCCS, NYU professor Jonathan Haidt considers the 'telos' or purpose of universities: To discover truth.
- Universities that prioritize the emotional comfort of students over the pursuit of truth fail to deliver on that purpose, at a great societal cost.
- To make that point, Haidt quotes CNN contributor Van Jones: "I don't want you to be safe ideologically. I don't want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong—that's different."
CNN contributor Van Jones speaks onstage at the EMA IMPACT Summit in 2018.
Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Environmental Media Association<p>There are many places and institutions whose purpose, or <em>telos</em>, is comfort. But a university is not one of those places. To make that point, Haidt quotes CNN contributor Van Jones:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">I don't want you to be safe ideologically. I don't want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong—that's different. I'm not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I'm not going to take all the weights out of the gym. That's the whole point of the gym. <em>This</em> is the gym.</p><p>By prioritizing comfort over the pursuit of truth, universities are ignoring their purpose. Higher education should be an arena of open inquiry and free expression, where ideas are exchanged, tested, and scrutinized. A liberal education should be "an invitation to be concerned not with the employment of what is familiar but with understanding what is not yet understood," <a href="https://books.google.com/books?id=Jpu7BAAAQBAJ&pg=PT286&lpg=PT286&dq=%22an+invitation+to+be+concerned+not+with+the+employment+of+what+is+familiar+but+with+understanding+what+is+not+yet+understood.%E2%80%9D&source=bl&ots=bmqaS1BxSm&sig=ACfU3U0aOokPZOGJlLFUVO9-a8VBV50tCw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi_u-jd1_btAhWqzVkKHSdKBMsQ6AEwAnoECAEQAg#v=onepage&q=%22an%20invitation%20to%20be%20concerned%20not%20with%20the%20employment%20of%20what%20is%20familiar%20but%20with%20understanding%20what%20is%20not%20yet%20understood.%E2%80%9D&f=false" target="_blank">according</a> to philosopher Michael Oakeshott.</p>
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Research from MIT's School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative found making college more affordable cut dropout rates and boosted degree attainment.
The study groups<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk1OTU2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NzYyMjgyMH0.HoOUfA4eXLgFltk-M_Mu3E3qORUh2shzeYoVa3wk86E/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C237%2C0%2C237&height=700" id="861dd" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cfef9e15abee21ae82c46b76199c4436" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of MIT and Harvard Bridge. The university's School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative partnered with the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation for the study.
Credit: Adobe Stock<p>The study comes from <a href="https://seii.mit.edu/" target="_blank">MIT's School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative</a>. Its researchers wanted to determine the effect scholarships had on degree attainment. As they put it, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Financial aid is typically motivated by a desire to increase postsecondary attainment by making college more affordable. This raises the question of whether aid meets this test by boosting educational attainment. As with any sort of award or subsidy, it's worth considering the extent to which financial aid changes behavior. The fact that aid is motivated by the desire to increase schooling does not mean aid programs accomplish this."</p><p>To test this question, they partnered with <a href="https://buffettscholarships.org/" target="_blank">the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation</a>, an organization that offers scholarships to first-time freshman attending public colleges in Nebraska. The researchers designed a partially randomized study around the Foundation's 2012–2016 scholarship applicants, a cohort of roughly 16,500 students seeking aid. </p><p>Because low-scoring applicants were unlikely to complete college, they were not provided a scholarship and were removed from the study. Similarly, while high-scoring applicants were awarded a scholarship, they too were removed from the study as their degree completion was likely with or without the financial abetment. This left a middle pool of applicants, each sporting a comparable level of need and college-readiness.</p><p>The Foundation awarded scholarships randomly to this middle group of applicants; those who did not receive scholarships served as the controls. Because the number of applicants far exceeded the available aid, no student was artificially denied a scholarship for the study's sake. All told, the study included 3,699 scholarship-awarded participants and 4,491 controls. Most sought degrees at four-year colleges though some matriculated into two-year schools.</p><p>As this group was comparable in areas such as GPA, colleges attended, and expected family contributions, any statistically significant difference between the recipients and the controls would provide some evidence of a causal connection between financial aid and degree attainment.</p>
Easing the six-year itch<p>The researchers followed the students' college careers, from freshman year to spring 2019, and found that the scholarships did change behavior. Enrollment was only slightly higher for the aid recipients than the controls—98.7 percent compared to 96.1—but as the two groups' college careers continued, a noticeable difference emerged in dropout rates. By the end of their fourth year, only 71.6 percent of the control group remained, a dropout rate of 24.5 percent; meanwhile, the scholarship group only declined by 18 percent.</p><p>The scholarships also bolstered degree completion. Though bachelor degree completion was roughly even by the end of the fourth year, the aid recipients began to pull ahead after that. By the end of their sixth year, 71 percent of the award recipients received their degree, 8.4 percentage points more than the control. This suggests that as degree completion began to drag on longer, the infusion of extra financial resources made the final push more manageable.</p><p>The researchers not only found that aid promotes full-time enrollment, but that it benefitted historically underrepresented groups most, including non-white and first-generation applicants. These findings support a <a href="https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/100548" target="_blank">growing</a> <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED545465.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">body</a> of <a href="https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/bitstream/handle/1808/12507/Shulenburger_University.pdf;sequence=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> that suggests college affordability directly impacts student decision-making and degree attainment.</p><p>The study, titled "<a href="https://seii.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/SEII-Discussion-Paper-2020.06-Angrist-Autor-Pallais.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Marginal Effects of Merit Aid for Low-Income Students</a>," is part of an ongoing research study. Additional reports will be released as the study continues.</p>
What does college affordability mean?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2f032882b6038c7d6734ac69f95fbb69"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/qZTnmMxnU0A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Scholarships are one way of making college more affordable, but they are part of a much larger conversation as to what affordability means.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/24/why-college-tuition-keeps-rising.html" target="_blank">ballooning cost of tuition</a> in recent decades is another concern. Factors for this surge include a massive increase in demand, cuts in state funding, new student services, and <a href="https://www.chronicle.com/article/executive-compensation-at-public-and-private-colleges/#id=table_public_2019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bloated administrative compensation</a>. While colleges could certainly rein in some of their more extravagant expenses, and legislators agree to fund more, <a href="https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/publications/ideas_summit/College_Affordability-What_Is_It_and_How_Can_We_Measure_It.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the question of affordability</a> goes further still. </p><p>It concerns the quality of education, whether students are dependent or independent, their resources before matriculating, what they can expect from the investment after graduation, and how much of their future income they are willing (or able) to pay. The calculus must also consider <a href="https://bigthink.com/kenzie-academy/software-engineering-school" target="_self">available alternatives</a>, their costs, and their potential outcomes. It's a multifaceted balancing act between what's available, what students can afford, and what schools can offer with the resources they have available—which, of course, ties directly to the funds that schools have available. </p><p>In <a href="https://www.higheredtoday.org/2017/05/16/think-college-affordability/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an op-ed for Higher Education Today</a><em>, </em>Susan Baum, a senior fellow in the Education Policy Program at the Urban Institute, correctly points out that a "low-cost program designed purely to train people for an occupation that is unlikely to exist in 10 years, while appearing 'affordable,' is not affordable at all."</p><p>So then, how should we think about college affordability?</p><p>Baum recommends we start the conversation with need-based considerations at the forefront. "The financial resources available to a student at the time of enrollment are critical. Students have very different starting points for measuring outcomes and value depending on their circumstances," Baum writes. But it also requires us to think beyond funding; we need to consider the resources colleges need to provide a valuable education as well as the types of experiences that students want. </p><p>If we want more students to graduate, we need to discover the right balance between moderate spending, need-based aid, and program quality, a balance that will make college accessible to all who desire to attend.</p>
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