Wellesley’s College Cost Estimator: A Collaborative Innovation

Today, Wellesley launched what we suspect will be a game-changer in the higher education market. My inTuition: Wellesley’s Quick College Cost Estimator is a simple online tool aimed at communicating to prospective students, in a clear and easily understood way, that Wellesley is affordable. Based on the feedback that we have received through beta testing (including input from some of our own economics alumnae), we suspect that other schools may want to adopt it for their own use. Already, it has gained some press in The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The idea for this estimator was developed by Phil Levine, who is the Katharine Coman and A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Economics and the chair of Wellesley’s Committee on Admission and Financial Aid. Phil and a team of key staff in Admission, Financial Aid, Library & Technology Services, and Public Affairs then designed the tool.

My inTuition will be aimed at prospective students and their families who are early in the college search process. Too often, well-qualified prospective students cross off Wellesley from their college list early on, because they assume it will be too expensive. But using My inTuition and providing easily-accessible information to a few questions, students and families can get a realistic estimate of what they can expect to pay for a Wellesley education—a number that may be surprisingly low for some families.

The tool is brilliantly simple, and it is one more way we are trying to make a Wellesley education accessible to all the bright young women who deserve to be here.

Congratulations, Class of 2013!

What a fabulous day for the members of the green Class of 2013 and their families! I am proud of our newest class of alumnae and all they have accomplished so far, and know that they will continue to make Wellesley proud in the years ahead.

The Class of 2013 will never forget this day. I know I won’t. (And not just because we all melted under our academic regalia, thanks to the 90-degree weather!) The day will long remain in our memories because it represents Wellesley at its best—coming together as a community to celebrate our students for their achievements and recognize our faculty whose work over the last four years has contributed to the education of this class.

It was also wonderful to have Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama, join us today as our Commencement speaker. Though she isn’t a Wellesley woman, she embraced the College as her own, with her most salient remarks. “Our country needs you,” she said. “In fact, the world needs all you have to offer. Our challenges are great, but so too are the opportunities for the positive change that you will create, if you remember not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”

Congratulations, Class of 2013! Enjoy this moment and come back to visit often.

Wellesley Faculty: Number 1

We just learned that The Princeton Review has ranked Wellesley College No. 1 in the country for having the best faculty. This is fantastic news! Certainly, our faculty are most deserving of this recognition, which is based on a survey of 122,000 college students around the country. (Earlier today, The TODAY Show aired a segment highlighting this news.)

Generations of Wellesley women have benefitted from the teaching and scholarship of our stellar faculty. You have only to look at the news headlines to see how fabulous our faculty are.

But that’s only half of the story. Time and again, when I speak with alumnae around the world, they share with me an important Wellesley memory that so often involves a relationship or experience that they had with a faculty member.

Congratulations to our Wellesley faculty.

The Debate About Undergraduate Education

On Friday, at the 2011 Commencement ceremony, I handed out the Pinanski Prizes for Excellence in Teaching to three faculty honorees this year. As I read excerpts of their citations, I was inspired to think about an obvious fact we too often lose sight of: good education can not exist without good teachers.

The Pinanski Prizes at Wellesley are a significant honor to the few who are chosen.  I think they are also an important symbol to everyone in our community.  They signal the College’s understanding that good teachers and inspired teaching is, and has been throughout our 136-year history, the single most important factor in making Wellesley the great institution that it is.

Certainly, Commencement is a day to celebrate our graduating seniors. And they absolutely deserve that.  But an important undertone to the day is about the faculty, and the role they play in the lives of students.  The faculty’s effect on the Class of 2011 became quite evident as I watched our graduating seniors rise to give a standing ovation of appreciation to the faculty they had come to know in the previous four years.

The power of teaching should not be a revelation to anyone. We all know that good teachers and good teaching are the bedrock upon which our educational system rests, the sine qua non of a good undergraduate education.  But this seems often to be forgotten.  As I watch the current debate about and politicization of higher education spinning around me, I see little evidence that this basic truth is recognized in arguments about higher education.  The public’s frustration with our economy and our politicians’ defensive reaction to that frustration has led, among other things, to an attempt to discredit the effectiveness of higher education in our country.  Our higher education system has served the country and the public very well over the past century, and, in large part, it explains the U.S. preeminence in the world.  The impetus of the current attacks on higher education seem to derive from those looking for instances of failure and then generalizing that failure even to the large segment of higher education who is doing it right.  To those who truly understand the purpose and function of undergraduate education, it really comes down to good teaching, which is something that is not subject to meaningful cost-benefit analysis.  My fear is that the political climate will lead to actions that will diminish—rather than improve—the effectiveness of our colleges and universities.  I fear many want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or whichever analogy you prefer.

I think we—and other institutions, as well as lawmakers and the general public—don’t celebrate our faculty enough, nor do we sufficiently appreciate the job they do.  I am proud that last Friday, at least for a few moments on the Academic Quad, we recognized the important work of three of our esteemed colleagues, and the faculty at large.

Everything That Counts Cannot Necessarily be Counted

I indicated in my April 4 post that I was worried.  I keep finding more reasons to worry about higher education in this country.  Recently the University of Texas System Board of Regents has focused on measuring faculty productivity.  They want to measure faculty productivity in a way that is similar to a numerical cost-benefit analysis.  This focus on measurement follows a growing belief in our country that colleges should be thought of as businesses whose customers are students.  As an offshoot, the regents of Texas A&M University have created a faculty rating system that measures how much money each faculty member brings in through teaching and then subtracts the salary and benefits costs of that faculty member.  Each faculty member can then be classified as “red” or  “black” depending on whether they are an individual profit center or a net financial loss.  Some have argued that they should add faculty grants received to the “profit” side, but to my mind this makes it even worse by artificially separating two essential components of scholarly activity—components that are entangled, and should be. The attitude that generated this naïve cost-benefit analysis is not Texas-specific.  It is a growing national attitude, and that is what worries me.

Faculty productivity cannot be measured by the number of students that pass through the classroom.  Higher education is so much more than that.  Students learn and continue to learn when motivated by good faculty; students don’t just learn in the classroom.  Good faculty create motivated learners and lifelong learners, exactly what we need for a productive society.  We do not need “Shovel-ready Students.” The business model assumes that everything that counts can be counted.  This is not true, as the title of this blog—a quote usually attributed to Albert Einstein—asserts.  The problem is not the insistence on measuring, but the assumption that if it can’t be measured it isn’t worth anything.  Of course, we need to assess how good a job our faculty are doing and how well we are educating our students, but simplistic cost-benefit analysis is not the way to do this.  If carried to an extreme, it would lead to a degradation of our educational system.  Higher education in this country—by any measure—has been enormously successful.  It is not an accident that other countries have and continue to admire and emulate our model.  This is not to say that we cannot improve the process.

I know our faculty at Wellesley are “productive” because I see their immediate effect on our students and their continuing effect on our alumnae.  It is a powerful effect that can never be approximated by counting noses in a classroom.  The cost of our faculty is easily determined and measured; the benefits they bring to Wellesley and society are not so easily quantified.

The Bad Use of a Good Tool

I am disappointed and wondering if I should be worried.

Democratic society is enhanced when people hammer out solutions to difficult issues through discourse and compromise. Democracy is tarnished when, instead, people hammer at their opponents instead of confronting their ideas. The latter is how I see the recent Freedom of Information Act requests directed at particular faculty at the University of Wisconsin. One political party in Wisconsin filed for all the emails of a prominent historian just two days after he questioned the actions of the party on his blog. Last week, the UW Chancellor wrote an eloquent and inspiring response to the request.

My disappointment stems from the fact that because our population is far more educated now than ever before, I had hoped that the tactic of assaulting the speaker—rather than the content of the speech—would not have as much traction today as it did in the past. Yet it is educated people who are perpetrating this assault on reasoned discourse.

The Freedom of Information Act is an important democratic tool. It is always disheartening to see it used to challenge academic freedom. Academic freedom is specifically intended to allow free and wide-ranging inquiry even into topics that upset powerful people in our society. It serves an important purpose in a good society; it is worrisome to have to wonder whether academic freedom is imperiled by partisan assaults. I hope that responsible citizens will recognize the societal value of free inquiry and speak up.

I also hope that not a single member of our faculty will be dissuaded, even in the slightest, from continuing to pursue their intellectual passion wherever it leads them.