Elitist and Homogeneous?

Fourth in a series on public/private higher education.

A common fear regarding Illinois Senator Brady’s idea (SB1565) for transitioning from public to private higher education in Illinois is that it will drive universities to elitism and homogeneity.  Wrong on both counts.  Brady’s concept will drive universities toward academically effective programs offered to the people they serve.

Market places are guided by individually perceived value and little else.

The intellectual and social costs and benefits of colleges vary widely.  No reliable evidence shows that a public institution, guided by legislative mandate, better serves diverse student aspirations.  On the other hand, there is substantial evidence that an institution can be diverse — to whatever benefit that yields — and be of high academic quality.

Rutgers Newark campus is identified by USNWR to be the most ethnically diverse research university in America. That is not surprising considering New Jersey demographics are boiled over from Manhattan: The cauldron of melting pots suspended over a crackling fire of free enterprise.

The next three schools on the list are surprising.  Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan is number two, ahead of Stanford and St. John’s.  Keeping score? Three fourths of the most ethnically diverse universities are private.  Andrews is about halfway between Grand Rapids and Chicago in rural Oronoko Township.  Don’t believe the hacks and charlatans blaming away university quality, enrollment, demographics, or performance on geography.  University purpose and leadership determine institutional constitution and success.

The 2014 College Niche Ranking for diversity is more inclusive than USNWR, extending to faculty and student gender, in/out-of-state students, international students, and student opinion polls. MIT is first and Chaminade University of Honolulu is tenth.   Not a single public institution appears at the top.

The University of Chicago, fourteenth nationally on the Niche list, leads Illinois universities in diversity.  The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is tenth in the state. My institution, SIU, shows up in the sixteenth spot between McKendree University and Benedictine University.

Maybe all these institutions are committed to serving ethnically diverse populations as part of their mission. Maybe mission-focused academic excellence is the motivating force for every action taken. Maybe social consciousness, driven by a sense of service and need, rather than political regulation, contributes to heterogeneity.

Maybe it’s dumb luck.  Maybe it’s leadership.

In a dozen ranking systems of every type, private institutions dominate when measuring diversity.

Economically diverse colleges dispel common preconceptions, according to a New York Times study of academically effective colleges. Vassar tops the list, although it is normally considered to be a monolithic, elitist institution catering to the likes of Jackie Onassis and Ellen Swallow Richards.  An NYT’s Upshot study charts the number of students on Pell Grants, the net price to low and middle income families, college accessibility and the endowment per student. The only public in the top ten is UNC Chapel Hill.  The same collection of institutions populates most diversity indices.

According to Wide Open Education’s assessment of the least diverse institutions in America, three are private and seven are public.

I don’t trust any of these studies.  They are laden with methodological flaws and biased findings. However, collectively and intuitively, I guardedly trust all of them.  And the message is clear:  private universities are more diverse in many measures than their public counterparts.

I recall a meeting with the CEO of Shell Oil in Houston in 1997. At the time Texas was under a Fifth Circuit Court (Hopwood v. Texas) ruling disallowing racial considerations in college admissions. Shell’s chieftain suggested that Shell needed diversity because the marketplace it served was diverse and getting more so. He knew that regulation would not produce the desired result.   Shell wanted to provide scholarships to underrepresented students.  Corporate interests were attended to by managers, workers and leaders who were reflective of, and responsive to, the population being served.

Privatized, market responsive, Affirmative Action.

Heterogeneity is not guaranteed by public institutions.  Private universities serve the public good by responding to individual students in a market place screaming for results, not onerous bureaucracies mumbling fecklessly directing organizations to “approved” social consciousness.

The only homogeneity that rightfully exists in any university is the intellectual skill and mental acumen of graduates.   All else?  Chatter.

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