Smaller schools can benefit from foundation dollars, too

 
 
Published4/5/2008 12:08 AM

The decision of Harvard University and other institutions, such as Northwestern University, with substantial endowments and national or international "brand names" to utilize more endowment income to keep their education affordable for students from low- and middle-income families is to be applauded.

While it is ironic that these schools -- most of which have long eschewed "merit scholarships" in attracting bright young men and women from homes with six-figure family incomes -- will accomplish precisely the same result with these measures, that is no reason to criticize them.

 

Nor is the competitive impact of these steps cause for hand-wringing. I have just completed my 17th year as president of one of the many less well-endowed, but nevertheless high-quality, private institutions (our endowment is less than 1/20th of that of Williams College, although we are of comparable size) that have long used merit scholarships, along with need-based financial aid, to encourage talented students to attend.

Arguably, I should be threatened by these steps.

Instead, I see this as an opportunity, a moment for generous individuals, foundations and the philanthropic community in general to reexamine giving priorities concerning colleges and universities.

Yes, there have been times over the years when I have felt the playing field in higher education was a little tilted toward the richer institutions. Try investing a portion of your endowment in high return "alternative investments" and meet audit standards when you don't have platoons of accountants on your staff.

Try going after major foundation and government grants when your school has only a handful of development professionals instead of a few hundred -- or when you cannot even attempt to compete because you are not on the list of (more wealthy and prestigious) schools invited to apply.

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In the 1960s, the Ford Foundation made a series of major grants to small liberal arts colleges -- many of which had a transforming impact on endowments and programs. In the 1990s, the Teagle Foundation, with far fewer resources, made similar grants with comparable results.

But in the 21st century, there are few national foundations that see small and mid-size independent colleges, particularly those that are not nationally known or well endowed, as a priority.

Once, these schools were recognized as the places where the rubber meets the road in higher education; where risk-taking and innovation are, of necessity, a way of life; where the teaching mission (and even core curricula) have not gone out of style; where success is defined by "value added" rather than the SAT scores of entering freshmen; and where the average income of students and their families is substantially lower than at the well-endowed institutions and flagship state universities.

Now they are no longer very trendy. While, ironically, some of the richest colleges continue to be major beneficiaries of foundation largess, sometimes in the name of serving the needy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In a universe of well-endowed private institutions, flagship state universities, taxpayer-supported regional universities and community colleges, small, independent schools provide the competitive yeast. They have to. They can't afford to be smug or complacent.

In this era of concern about accountability and accessibility in higher education, the role of "not wealthy, but healthy" schools such as North Central College has never been more pivotal.

Whatever the Ivies do, there will always be hard-working and talented young men and women, including many low-income and minority students, who want or need to stay close to home, and who can most benefit from the small classes, deeply-committed teachers and value-centered education that can be found at these colleges.

This is a great time for people of means and the foundations they have established -- inspired by the Harvard example -- to rediscover a sector of higher education where the dollar goes farther … and to invest where the impact of their philanthropy will ensure access to a segment of our population that can most benefit from the quality of education these schools provide.

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