When a College Dies

One of my favorite people from graduate school (a writing program at Columbia) was Peter Temes. He worked incredibly hard, writing and teaching and raising a family all at once, which meant that he kept his head way out of the clouds, which couldn’t be said of all of our peers. He has gone on to write some books (including The Just War and The Power of Purpose), teach at some universities, and is now the president of the ILO Institute, a consortium of 60+ global companies and NGOs focused on innovation in large organizations. For three years, he was also president of the Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, N.H.

We were talking recently about the closing of Antioch College, and what it says about the state of higher education. Peter had some interesting thoughts on the subject, so I asked him to write up the following guest blog post. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

When a College Dies
by Peter Temes

While many colleges and universities are living through a golden age of student demand, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, known for its social-justice politics and its extensive work/study “co-op” programs, recently announced that it’s going out of business for lack of students.

So what makes one college more appealing than another?

A dozen years ago or so, as a working-stiff graduate student at Columbia and later as a (very) junior faculty member at Harvard, I sometimes found myself simultaneously teaching at a couple of the most selective colleges in the country, and at a couple of the least selective. For several terms, I taught at both Columbia and the New York Institute of Technology; later, I taught simultaneously at Harvard and Northern Essex Community College.

One lesson that leaped out at me was that the students at NYIT and Northern Essex needed their degrees, and whatever they managed to learn in class, much more than the students at Columbia and Harvard did. If you had locked the Ivy League students out of higher education entirely, they still would have prospered. The smarts and discipline that got them admitted in the first place primed them for success. Meanwhile, the community college and technical school undergrads were going to cling to their sheepskins for dear life.

There’s some center of value here that comes not from what the elite schools pour into you when you attend, but from their validation of who you already are when you are admitted. The validation and commemoration of ability are a big part of what a management consultant might call the Ivy League “value proposition.” And your local community college can’t do that, not at all. Therefore, in some ways, the local college has to pay more attention to the change it creates in students, given that the value of affiliation with the school, beyond what you learn there, is pretty close to zero.

One-hundred-and-fifty-year-old Antioch is rolling up its sidewalks because it lacked the ability to validate budding young geniuses by putting the word “Antioch” on their resumes, and it lacked the kind of skill-and-knowledge value that a good community college focuses on. (The study of gender was perhaps the most visible strand of learning in recent years — hardly a waste of time, but neither is it a useful tool to raise your income or your status among most people.)

I was the head of Antioch’s sister school, the Antioch New England Graduate School, for a couple of years not long ago, and joined an earnest group of administrators on a couple of committees dedicated to fixing the college and forestalling total collapse. The struggle of the college, I came to believe, had less to do with things like the physical state of the campus (not great, because of deferred maintenance) or the average number of piercings among the student body (off-puttingly high, according to some), than with a lack of clarity about what the college taught and why.

Recently deceased Antioch alum Theodore Levitt (no relation to Steve Levitt), a long-time distinguished professor at Harvard Business School and former editor of the Harvard Business Review, was famous for teaching that people did not buy goods or services because of what those goods and services were, but because of the jobs they did. No one wants to buy a quarter-inch drill, he would say; people really want to buy a quarter-inch hole.

Similarly, no one wanted to go to Antioch College because of how shiny the campus might be or how its system of classes might work (and it happened to work in quite a distinctive and interesting way). That is, students would not go to Antioch because of what Antioch was. Instead, it would be because of what Antioch could do for a student.

Another Antioch alum, its most famous and perhaps most important, was Coretta Scott King. Not long before her death last year, she noted in an interview with Tavis Smiley that many people underestimated her effect on Martin Luther King, and that, in turn, many underestimated the effect that her four years at Antioch had had on her.

Antioch College was useful to Coretta Scott King because of the hard work of reading, writing, and talking that she found there, the core work that creates the hard-to-grasp thing called academic quality. Antioch did great things for Ms. King and, through her, for the world.

I began to think that Antioch College would not in fact survive after a chance encounter with an influential member of one of those “save the school” committees I served on. As we were talking, I shared my opinion that the only long-term competitive advantage in higher education is academic quality.

He made a thoughtful face, paused a moment, and then said, “No, no, I don’t think so.”


Torkel Grisnjure

There are many long-term competitive advantages other than academic quality. A prime location or a good football or basketball team will attract just as many students as a good academic program.

Govar

Very true. I come from one of the Indian Institute of Managements in India. And these institutes take in just about 1000 students out of 175,000 applicants.

This means that the students have-it-in-them, which is why not many people actually look and evaluate these schools based on the faculty or infrastructure they have and the syllabus they follow. Your getting in in the first place proves a thing or two!

Troy Camplin

It's been my experience in teaching at the college level that academic quality has been taking a back seat for a long time now. Community colleges want to make thiings as easy as possible so they can get as many students as possible -- it's the short-term bottom line for them. For them it's all about quantity, not quality (what they don't realize is that without quality, they won't have quantity, long-term). The problems at universities can be very different. I taught rhetoric, and in the university I used to teach at, we were supposed to teach students advanced rhetorical tecniques. The problem was the students couldn't put together a paragraph, let alone the kind of standard 5-paragraph paper we were specifically discouraged from teaching. But the students didn't have the basics -- they had no foundation on which to build. As a consequence, we turned out few good writers who weren't already good writers. ANd boy did companies complain.

It sounds like Antioch was postmodern before postmodernism was cool. That's why they're dead.

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John

Perhaps Antioch faced a competitive disadvantage with its ludicrous sexual harassment policy:

http://www.antioch-college.edu/Campus/sopp/index.html

Grant

When I read about the closing of this school I was reminded almost immediately of Phillip Roth's construction, Athena College, in The Human Stain. The only real difference between Athena and Antioch appears to be that Athena was lucky enough to have Coleman Silk to save it.

If only there were a real-world Coleman Silk. Too bad.

HTB

Torkel, a prime location or good team attracts *customers*, not good students. If you're in the business of selling dorm space and a stupid piece of paper to the highest bidders, then that's fine. If your goal is to turn a good student into an educated person, then real estate and sports are largely irrelevant.

martin g

"If you had locked the Ivy League students out of higher education entirely, they still would have prospered. The smarts and discipline that got them admitted in the first place primed them for success."

"There's some center of value here that comes not from what the elite schools pour into you when you attend, but from their validation of who you already are when you are admitted"

There is a contradiction here. If the unsuccessful (locked out) applicant is left to infer that they were not good enough because they were denied that "validation", then their potential for future success will suffer. What's validated for many attending Ivy League schools is their sense of entitlement.

If you are old enough you might have noticed that the word "entitlement" has shifted in common discourse to refer more often to an "unjustified sense" of having an effortless right to the benefits of income redistribution or affirmative action. It used to be that "entitlement" was exclusive to the upper class. Similarly the meaning of the phrase "politically correct" has also shifted significantly from when I first heard it. In the mid-sixties when anti-establishment types publicized certain unflattering facts regarding US history, e.g. Washington's wooden teeth (and expense account) or Jefferson's slaves or the abuse of Native Americans, they were called disrespectful of US history and it's heroes. Their retort was that the critics were actually labeling them as "politically incorrect", which term explicitly alluded to the authoritarian control over political speech exercised in Soviet Russia.

Slightly off topic, but the primary utility of schools has also suffered from reactionary politics. While the conservative right has co-opted the language of the liberal left, the left has politicized higher education. My most rewarding experiences in higher education have come from those teachers who demanded the most, though oddly many of them were quite political. I think that, overall, that may have been a mistake on their part.

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Sam Dworken

The irony that this blog entry was posted on the same day that US News & World Report's Best Colleges of 2008 went live on their website was not lost on me. I agree that the value of a college degree lies entirely in what it can "do" for the recipient. However, the value of each degree is not based on academic quality... entirely. That may be part of it, but today choosing a college is just like choosing any other commodity or product. It's more about name recognition and reputation than quality. When they say it's not about WHAT you know, but WHO you know... they are talking about the difference between the quality of your education and the alumni network you have when you leave. It's all about where your college ranks in US News. Sad, but true.

EmilyAnabel

My sentiment is that a total clueless klutz could teach at an elite institution and the students would still learn the subject well, largely because the students wouldn't be there if they didn't already have initiative and curiousity, at least in theory. But it does take more of a gifted instructor to be valuable to students from less privileged backgrounds at lower-tier institutions.

As far as Antioch, hopefully the physical campus can avoid the indignity of becoming something embarrassing. At one point, when Eisenhower College closed, there was some discussion of the campus being converted to a low-security prison! That didn't happen, which would have been pretty humbling to its alums. Apparently it is some kind of chiropractic institution now.

Derek Giromini

Could we draw the following analogy: small specialized colleges are to large university and university systems what self-owned shops are to chain retail, big box or boutique?

Jim Cropcho

Torkel,

I don't think a serious academic institution would want to attract the type of student whose top priority in college selection is the notoriety of the athletic team, although I could certainly see it as a minor consideration.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Fine education should be free and open to all. Your willingness to learn and your passion for ideas should be the only requirement to get you in the door.

In terms of professions, we should just have some sort of apprentice-system for the lot of them. Apprentice yourself to the jewelry-maker, lock-smith, village welder, wheel-right, apothecary...ect.

Everything is degree-ed to death, these days. It's a bit much. You end up with kids who hate to learn and only want to know what to do to pass the course. Disheartening, no?

Troy Camplin

Yes, Rita, let's turn the universities into the kind of fine, high quality institutions our public elementary, middle, and high schools are. It is our free public schols that turn out people who hate to learn -- the universities do a pretty good job, overall, of reversing that trend for many people.

You are right about the idea of apprenticeship, however -- I would allow middle school kids to choose between academic high schools and apprenticeships that allow them to learn something useful to their values.

Ben

"Torkel, a prime location or good team attracts *customers*, not good students. If you're in the business of selling dorm space and a stupid piece of paper to the highest bidders, then that's fine. If your goal is to turn a good student into an educated person, then real estate and sports are largely irrelevant."

I have a problem with this statement.

Yes, much is made of the educational goals of colleges, but the fact remains that colleges, particularly private ones, are businesses.

Their business is to attract tuition paying students by offering services.

It seems to me the real issue here is exactly how you define what "service" the college is offering.

A good education may be the centerpiece of a good college, but it is not, by any reasonable standard, the whole package.

I attended a small nationally ranked liberal arts college. It's my personal opinion that I received an excellent college education, based on my experience of getting into a good law school and how well prepared I was for law school by my education.

But, the thing is that every single other liberal arts college within 30 rankings either way on the US News Liberal Arts College top 100 list is offering a similarly good education. All of them would be generally well regarded by graduate schools and corporate headhunters. They cost similar amounts (with leeway for geography), and have not dissimilar admission standards.

What sells one college over another is "the Experience" that one college offers over another, and a fundamental part of the experience can be a good campus social life, or a good sports team, or a particular location, or a focus on certain kinds of experiential programs or any number of other factors, that extend far beyond merely a good education.

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zbicyclist

Education is all instrumental, and is intended as such.

Temes is right that lower-tier schools are providing training -- or just providing a "union card" degree to show mastery of some area.

Higher tier schools are providing training -- or just providing a "union card" degree to show mastery of some area.

In short, I don't see the fundamentals as all that different -- just the dollars involved and the amount of opportunity earned.

By the way, my undergrad degree is from an undistinguished state commuter school and my PhD is from an elite institution, so I've seen both sides.

Institutions fail or succeed because they position themselves to fill a need and aren't "just another liberal arts college" -- or because they have extraordinary endowments.

Lots of ways to differentiate. My daughter went to Kalamazoo College, which is justly famed for its study-abroad programs. Religious schools differentiate themselves on the basis of a particular denomination, etc.

Does the loss of "just another liberal arts college" affect is in any meaningful way?

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Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

#13: Please recall my statement that a willingness to learn and a passion for ideas is what really matters. Of course, I agree with you that much lower education proves to be rather deadening than inspiring.

Chip Overclock

While I was in graduate school in the early 1980s at another university I lived a ten minute drive from Yellow Springs Ohio. It was a frequent stop by car or motorcycle, motivated by its great resturants, funky shops, and a good science fiction bookstore, not to mention nearby Young's Jersey Dairy where you could get some ice cream and pet some goats. Many of my professors lived in the Springs, once known for having more Ph.D.s per capita than any other town in the U.S.

The culture of Yellow Springs was unique: part high-tech, part farmland, part hippies that never got past the 1960s. You could walk down main street (a.k.a. US68) and see BMW sedans, farm pickups, and old VW microbusses with flower-power paintwork parked side by side.

YS was very much informed by the presence of Antioch College. I was back there just a few months ago, visiting family, and was shocked to read in the local paper that the college was closing due to financial issues. I feel like I've lost a dear friend and an important part of my life.

Admittedly Antioch was the brunt of much humor, particularly from those of us in engineering and hard sciences, but if we were completely honest, we valued Antioch because it was so different.

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MP77

This is a really good article, but I disagree with two of your assessments...
1. that Ivy league students *need* their educatioal degrees less than community college students do... this may be true for many Ivy league students, but definitely not all. I was an international student to an ivy league, and I very much needed that degree to get to where I am in my life. There were many other students like myself.
2. Inherent in your analysis is the assumption that that students who didn't end up going to ivy league schools, didn't do so because they were not smart enough to get in. (this is the whole schools preselect for the smartest students theory.) this completely ignores financial and social situations. Despite affirmative action and financial aid, many students who get in to ivy leagues still end up going to state schools or local schools because its what they can afford - either financially or socially (meaning having to stay close to home, take care of younger siblings etc.)

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Satish Jha

True.. mostly so.. My son is about to go college.. He has a perfect SAT score.. teachers would say that he is one of the five best they have met in 30 years.. I thought he will go to place I touch the thresolds of without gaining a degree.. like Harvard and Yale.. He is keen on Chicago.. His point..he is more like the students at Chicago than Harvard and Yale..His perception.. H&Y may be flashier..Chicago may accept the studious.

I went to a school that closed down.. mind you, a business school that could not find business professors to run it as a business.. Then I looked at India and everyone and his uncle who could not go a school I could name was running a profitable school.. Schools also do well as a business.. They need presidents who could live in castlesque houses for free with a begging bowl larger than their campuses.. Its business of begging for alms and then branding to get the alms without much sweat.. It holds truer for the president than the student.. a bright, academic president is more likely to ruin an educational institution than avergae students with higher piercing ratio.. Still, your friend is doing fine as the prez of an institute, the poor college is left dying..amen..

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mathking

A couple of thoughts struck me as I read this. Living in Columbus (about an hour east of Yellow Springs) this has been in the news here frequently in the past couple of months. There are a wide set of factors involved in Antioch's closing. It has been in trouble for a long while. At base, Antioch has been unable to attract enough students to stay open. I think one of the key problems has been the degredation of the academic program. Many disciplines had become under or unrepresented on campus. The sciences in particular languished. And liberal arts students tend to want a liberal arts experience. It is no accident that a vastly disproportionate share of the nations scientists, for example, do their undergraduate work at liberal arts schools. In this degredation of its academic programs, Antioch has been hurt by the abundance of good liberal arts schools relatively close to it. (Wittenberg, Earlham, Ohio Wesleyan, Depauw, Denison, Kenyon, Wooster and Oberlin to name a few.) When you can go to a better school of the same type, and one which has a lot more money for financial aid, why go to Antioch?

As for the differences between top tier and bottom tier schools, there is more going on here. There is certainly something to the fact that students at Harvard are much better prepared for academic life (and possibly for the work world) than students at Columbus State University. On the other hand, ask anyone who works in human resources and they will tell you that the longer you work, the less important your degree becomes. On the other hand, a good education will help prepare you to get those good recommendations.

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