From the Director: Food for Thought

by Vince Durnan, director

A peek inside the minds of independent school heads and college presidents.
As you switch gears to make ready for Thanksgiving gatherings, let me share something to chew on from an uncommon meeting two weeks ago in Denver. The premise is this: a handful of heads from selected schools around the country join a small group of college presidents to talk about our respective educational worlds. We gathered for the first time in Washington a year ago, and it proved interesting enough to earn a spot on busy calendars this year.
Colleagues from Catlin Gabel in Portland, Georgetown Day in Washington, D.C., and Colorado Academy in Denver partnered with the presidents of Denison and Colorado College to convene the group, inviting Riverdale Country School, Tufts, Wilmington Friends, Furman, Punahou, Bowdoin, and Hawken, among others. An idiosyncratic but high powered list—Google them if you’re not convinced at first glance. And there was a seat for USN at that table, which tells you a little about the way we are seen out there in the wider world.
Our guests in the 41st floor conference room this month were two data mavens, one from the Independent School Data Exchange (INDEX), which 160 invited members use for benchmarking, and the other a principal from Art & Science Group, research consultant to dozens of colleges and a few school organizations. They shared trends in admissions, in finances, and in plans for the future. Then they turned us loose to compare notes and share stories. I would have walked from Nashville to be part of those conversations. Here are a few reflections:
Tuitions continue rising, and with them worries about access for talented students who can pay full fare. You may have seen the recent announcement about Michael Bloomberg’s billion-dollar gift to guarantee that his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, can become completely need-blind when deciding whom to admit. Or maybe you’ve followed the Opportunity Vanderbilt initiative. Meanwhile, less well-funded institutions turn to complex pricing strategies, various discounts, and larger operating budget commitments to financial aid in order to attract students and fill seats. Not really our circumstance.
Worth mentioning is that USN continues to charge roughly 20 percent less than schools in comparable situations nationwide, that we play no games with pricing or billing, and that we’ve found that if we work hard enough to get the word out in the city (witness last weekend’s Open Houses), we can be a beautifully full school. But the prospect of a rapidly growing financial aid endowment is still compelling, maybe especially so after we saw it double through our Centennial Campaign.
Then we talked about grades, which have escalated/inflated both in high school and college to the point that they offer little capacity for differentiation from one application to the next. Maybe we’re just teaching better, or maybe anxious students are completing assignments more conscientiously, or maybe it’s the coddling of the American mind. Whatever the case, the sorting hat is not functioning the way it used to, leaving questions about how to allocate opportunities and communicate progress. No simple solutions proffered, with the Mastery Transcript project years away from any widespread implementation, and lots of interest in mapping the skills and dispositions predictive a successful, healthy, productive college experience.
We finished with the perhaps surprising finding that students and families tend to identify liberal arts as a negative attribute when considering options for higher education. Even campuses known for their bedrock commitment to those fields are inclined to describe themselves in different terms, preferring being “student-centered,” “interdisciplinary,” or “responsive” instead—whatever all that means. As much as we know that learning to think, in the company of other open-minded individuals, is as essential to adaptive excellence as any software fluency, those old-school ideas currently feel old-school to lots of people.
Which leaves us plenty to think about. Fortunately, we’re playing a strong hand demographically in Nashville, we’re next door neighbors with one of the country’s leading universities, in a university town, and we get invited to talk shop with great people. You shouldn’t fear us turning USN upside down—the stakes are too high—but we’ll also avoid the risk of developing feet of clay in the face of big systemic challenges. We’ll keep thinking and working to ask (and answer) the right questions.
Enjoy the reminder this week to be grateful for what really matters,

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