What defines an elite institution? These higher ed presidents don’t all agree

Institutions at a crossroads between pouring money out and remaining economically viable put a greater strain on leaders to look in the mirror and define their endgame.

At The Presidents Dinner in Washington, D.C., last week, 13 college presidents gathered with national media outlets to engage in organic conversation about higher education and some of today’s most pressing issues.

Seeing that the presidents attending predominantly hailed from selective, well-endowed private colleges with a student enrollment of fewer than 5,000 students, Doug Lederman, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, suggested defining certain institutions as “elite” be put to an end. But Union College President David R. Harris staunchly defended the label, likening the term’s utility to his experience studying race relations.

“The problem with our discussions of race is that we never define it,” he said. “We talk past each other because we don’t know what we’re talking about.”

Harris believes “there’s a whole constellation of things that define ‘elite,'” such as selectiveness and an endowment above $500 million, but it isn’t something prestigious institutions—like those present at the dinner—should shy away from. “You can be ‘elite’ without being elitist,” he said.

While Harris wears the term like a badge, Colorado College President L. Song Richardson, whose institution falls squarely in this category, doesn’t embrace it. Instead, “elite” is a classification placed on Colorado by the outside world.

Despite the discussion, the term never found a satisfying definition, a missed opportunity for leaders to find common ground as the U.S. rebounds from the end of affirmative action by investigating how “elite” colleges contribute to racial and economic disparities. This one topic and its unsatisfying ending demonstrated how a lack of transparency between institutions and the public has created some of higher education’s most prevalent issues.

Communication breakdown remained a common denominator when leaders discussed their problems addressing access, affordability and higher education’s chief function.

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As quickly as Lewis and Clark President Robin Holmes-Sullivan and other institutions race to expand outreach and recruitment efforts for minority students in the wake of affirmative action ending, Holmes-Sullivan pointed to the “misinformation problem” that keeps Black and Brown students from even attempting to apply to prestigious institutions.

“Unless they want to, they don’t have to go to their community college or regional college,” said Holmes-Sullivan. “They could absolutely go to our colleges, but I think we can do a much better job at making sure those students understand that there is a place for them and that they are qualified and ready to attend our institution.”

Brown University President Christina Paxson made a similar refrain at the National Summit for Equal Opportunity in July when she discussed the programs already in place for under-resourced students, of which the public is largely unaware. She mentioned how much it surprises community members when she discusses how Brown does not charge tuition to students whose families make less than $125,000. “People look at me like I have two heads,” she said.

But less endowed colleges cannot afford to grant students such gracious need-based financial aid, and it begs the question of who should be held responsible for the bill—and why.

Fordham University President Tania Tetlow believes affordability should be placed on public policy. While highly endowed schools such as Brown can afford to hemorrhage money on student support while remaining financially viable, finding that line for other institutions is nearly impossible.

“Part of holding schools accountable for that is understanding the economics of how you scale real retention efforts, how you scale between the excellence that students deserve, the student support that the poorer students need more of, at a price that they can afford, is brutally hard,” she said.

Institutions at a crossroads between pouring money out and remaining economically viable put a greater strain on leaders to look in the mirror and define their endgame.

“The undertone I get is that higher ed should fix the inequality that is devastating this country, and we do have an important role,” Wellesley College President Paula A. Johnson said. “The question is, what is that role, what is the organization that we actually create, and what is the momentum and power that we might have that we don’t yet quite recognize today?”

This lack of a solid foundational mission produces mixed messages for the public. Without a clear understanding of higher education’s function, prospective students and their parents may never be satisfied with what they expect from a degree. DePauw University President Lori S. White sees this tension between higher education’s perception as a societal good versus an individual interest as a chief issue.

“Unless we can get the public to see that is in their best interest, then it’s going to be tough for them to understand why we are continually committed to making sure that our institutions reflect the rich diversity of our country,” she said. “We are not doing a very good job articulating why that’s important.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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