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Monday, July 27, 2009


Here is Part Six of my extended essay on the ideal college. To read the entire essay as it has developed thus far, click on this link:


The college education will be free. There will be no charges for tuition, room, board, health care, books, or other expenses, and each student will be given a small stipend for personal needs. Students from wealthy families will not be charged exorbitant fees to help defray the expenses of students from poor families. Hence, all students will graduate with no loan burdens, making it possible for them to follow career paths that are not defined by the need to pay off student loans.

This is a utopian vision, but the absence of fees is hardly a novel feature of our ideal college. Monasteries and convents also do not charge fees. They are supported by churches or states. In many countries of the world, higher education is free for those who can gain admission, though rarely are food, clothing, and shelter also provided.

Our college will therefore need a large endowment. To be sure, the non-academic labor of the students and faculty will reduce considerably the cost of maintaining the college, but an endowment will still be essential. How much? I confess that though I have made some back-of-the-envelope estimates, I really am not sure what the annual operating budget will be. My guess is that the college might cost fifteen million a year to run. That translates into an endowment of perhaps three hundred million, over and above the capital cost of the campus and buildings. Chump change for Amherst or Williams, but still a significant pile of cash.

As soon as the word gets out that our college is free, really free, we will be inundated with applications. Merely paying for a staff large enough to read all of them could add several millions of dollars a year to the operating budget. How WILL we select our students? This is clearly one of the two most important tasks facing the college [the other being recruiting the faculty – more of that anon], so we need to talk about it at length.

We will NOT be examining the performance of high school students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or any other supposed measure of student academic ability. Nor will we be examining grade point averages. We will take no interest whatsoever in sports, music, art, drama, debating, or other extra-curricular activities, and we will not be reading letters of recommendation. In fact, we will not invite applications at all. We will not accept students; we will go out across the country and look for them.

Let me be clear about what we will be looking for. Quite simply, each year we shall seek one hundred fifty young men and women who are prepared to devote four years of their lives to the rigorous intellectual activity of the college. Adverting yet again to the religious analogy, we will be seeking one hundred fifty young people who have a calling to the life of the mind. We will not be looking for the BEST one hundred fifty. That way lies self-defeating madness. Once we have found one hundred and fifty, we will stop looking until next year, even though there will almost certainly be many, many more whom we have not found.

Where will we look? In secondary schools across the country, some in up-scale privileged neighborhoods, some in blighted inner cities, some in tiny rural communities, some in working class enclaves. Wherever we go, we will ask the teachers in the schools one question: “Do you have a student who is obsessed with books, in love with learning, passionate about ideas?” We will not be asking, “Who is your best student?” Very often, the best student in a school is a performing seal who has mastered the trick of balancing a ball on his nose while playing The Star Spangled Banner on a set of horns. When we find prospects, we will talk with them about what they have been reading, read what they have been writing, listen to them as they talk about what excites them, engages their intelligence, puzzles and fascinates them. We will explain in great detail what life in our college community would hold for them – what their responsibilities would be, what we would provide, and, equally important, what our college would not offer. When we find a young man or woman who is right for our college, we will offer admission on the spot. If the offer is accepted, we will put one more chalk mark on the blackboard in the President’s office. If the offer is declined, we will move on. No positions will be held open for especially “qualified” candidates. There will be neither early admission nor a waiting list, just instant admission.

Who will carry this burden of recruiting? The question answers itself – the Faculty. No one else is competent to judge whether a candidate is suitable for our college. Each Fall, upwards of half of the Faculty will fan out across the country on weekend trips, searching for students for the freshman class entering the following Fall. On average, each professor will be responsible for finding five students. By early in the new year, we will probably have filled our class.

We will be seeking a gender, racial, and ethnic balance in each class. How can we do this without falling afoul of laws against quotas and racial preferences? There are two answers: First, we are seeking one hundred fifty suitable candidates, one by one. At no time will we be comparing one candidate with another, ranking them comparatively. Each potential candidate will be measured against an inflexible standard: Is he or she a person who has the commitment and the ability to be a member of our college community? If the answer is yes, then he or she is in. Otherwise, not. Thus there will be no elaborate system for sorting a flood of applicants into various categories, hence no possibility of adding points for race or economic background or gender.

Second, it is entirely up to us where we look, and as anyone who knows America is aware, when it comes to race, ethnicity, and gender, where you look very powerfully shapes what you find.

Will the faculty be able to recognize suitable candidates, without relying on the usual stigmata – SAT scores, grades, letters of recommendation? Well, ask yourself this: Can an athletic scout recognize baseball, football, or soccer prospects, simply from watching them play? Can a music teacher recognize musical talent? If we academics cannot actually tell whether young persons are suitable for our college after spending time with them, talking with them, reading what they have written, then we have no business calling ourselves Professors!

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