The Rest of the Story

Growing up, I was a huge fan of talk radio. One of the voices I remember quite fondly from my childhood was that of Paul Harvey, whose well-known program The Rest of the Story would present the little-known facts of an otherwise well-known story. As the president of a small, private university, I pay close attention to media reports of the rising cost of college and recognize there is so much of the story that remains untold, particularly for institutions like mine.

The College Board recently published a new report, Trends in College Pricing. Most of the data presented throughout the report focuses on published tuition and fee trends. While dramatic increases in the sticker price of college makes for exciting sound bites and compelling headlines, the published tuition price of a university is a relatively meaningless number. These increases in published costs are most dramatic for 4-year private nonprofit colleges. Among the priciest private institutions in the country, published costs well exceed $60,000 per year, and many of those same institutions are supported by endowments in the hundreds of million to several billion dollars. Add to this the fact that for all but the highest income families, the average income was lower in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2013 than it had been in 2003. Based on these figures alone, it’s no wonder that the media, legislators, parents and students believe that a college education, particularly at a private institution, is becoming more and more out of reach.

But there is more to this story than meets the eye. In 2004-05, while the average published tuition and fee price of 4-year private nonprofit colleges was $25,000, the net price (what the average student actually paid after institutional scholarships, grants and discounts) was less than $15,000. Ten years later, in academic year 2014-15, while the sticker price had risen to $31,000 (an increase of 24% over ten years), the net cost had decreased to $12,000. Yes, you read that right. The actual cost the average student paid to attend a private nonprofit college has actually gone down over the last decade –by 21%!

For most private institutions, this decrease in net tuition isn’t made up for by endowment income. The College Board noted that just ten private doctoral universities hold 45% of the total endowment assets of all private nonprofit four-year institutions combined. That leaves 900 other institutions sharing the remaining 55% of endowment assets. Of those institutions with a billion dollars or more in endowment, the average spending rate is 4.8% compared to 4.1% for institutions whose endowment is less than $25 million. If you do the math, you’ll see that for an institution with a $25 million endowment, just over $1 million a year is generated to support the overall operating budget. For a rich institution with a billion dollar endowment, that annual supplement is a whopping $48 million.

I’ve been president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta for almost a decade. Despite the narrative of rich private colleges getting richer at the expense of middle class families, the reality is that most private colleges in America look a lot more like Oglethorpe than Columbia or NYU (two of the highest sticker prices in the nation, and endowments of $9.2 billion and $3.5 billion respectively). In 2014, our net tuition was just over $12,500 per student, close to the national average. A decade before, we were hovering right at $10,000. In that regard, we have been counter-cyclical; where most small privates have faced a declining net tuition trend of over 20%, we have experienced an increase in that same range. Yet either way, up or down, most private colleges and universities whose organizations operate close to the $12,000 net tuition number have struggled mightily over the last decade to continue to provide the kind of quality education we are known for across the globe.

Just consider the 20% increase in the CPI in the last ten years. With close to half of most colleges’ budgets devoted to payroll, just keeping pace with inflation for faculty and staff has been nearly impossible. This doesn’t take into account, of course, concurrent increases in utility costs, technology expenses, insurance rates and so on. As I have said many times to anyone who will listen, higher education is as tough and competitive a business as it gets, and there are and will increasingly be winners and losers.

I don’t worry much about the top fifty or one hundred institutions; ten years from now, they will all still be among the top fifty or one hundred. Collectively, however, they educate a very small slice of this country’s students. The real question concerns the economic survival of the rest of us who together educate many, many more times the number of students (and often students who come from less privileged circumstances).

The question I pose is this: are there solutions to this conundrum of falling net tuition, rising costs, and declining family income? One solution (that I have no hope of becoming a reality) is recognition by federal and state governments that higher education is an investment they ought to be making on behalf of young people and our society as a whole. Precisely that kind of investment is happening in almost every other country, but right here at home, we are dis-investing from education. It’s hard to imagine this strategy will turn out very well, but we certainly seem committed to it. So, if that’s not in the cards, what other positive solutions can I offer? I know some heartening stories from other colleagues who lead institutions like ours, but I know our story the best and I think within it lie some universally applicable lessons.

At Oglethorpe, we are addressing these challenges in two ways. The first is focusing on our core enterprise and unique value proposition, learning to make our curriculum both rigorous and relevant. Most institutions that stand a chance of thriving over the next decade bring something unique to the table. Those that don’t will need to come up with something, and fast. It might be a set of programs that are in high demand –Warren Wilson’s focus on integrated work and service is a good example. It might be a location or setting that naturally attracts young people (Oglethorpe is blessed with a beautiful campus in the dynamic and growing city of Atlanta, which is a hotbed of experiential learning opportunities). It could be a religious affiliation that provides a unique value proposition, like at Hillsdale College. It might be a signature curriculum like the Great Books program at St. John’s College that is widely recognized as providing great value. It might even be signature athletic programs, such as Kenyon College’s swimming programs. Whatever their value proposition, every school must be clear and precise about what their value is, and how they will deliver and expand on that unique promise.

All that said, even an excellent manifestation of your differentiating principle is not likely to provide sufficient ballast for institutions lacking a large endowment. In order to survive and hopefully thrive, I believe most schools will need to create alternative or additional routes to supplement their core business, which is the second way we are addressing today’s challenges—through partnerships.

At Oglethorpe, we have pursued three such strategies. Two of our new ventures are directly tied to our strategic vision of becoming a more global community and the third to our plans to grow enrollment. All three have rapidly achieved significant scale through the formation of partnerships with outside companies.

In the fall of 2012, Oglethorpe partnered with the world’s largest language learning provider to open an English language institute on our campus, designed to attract college age students from across the world to Atlanta and to our university. The program has grown from seven students in October, 2012 to 260 in the fall of 2014. More than a dozen of these students are transitioning this year from the English program to full-time status as Oglethorpe freshmen. Thanks to this partnership, we are successfully growing our international student population, realizing a consistent revenue stream, and have renovated two academic spaces and a residence hall.

At the same time as this inbound program began, we opened a new outbound study abroad program through a second partnership. In the summer of 2014, over 200 students from more than thirty different universities enrolled in an Oglethorpe-branded study abroad program. These students are taking Oglethorpe-designed courses, taught by Oglethorpe faculty, for Oglethorpe credit in one of three cities: Cape Town, Rome and Athens, and we are on target to add a fourth site in the summer of 2016. Between these two programs, Oglethorpe’s identity as a global university has grown and our bottom line has improved by well over one million dollars.

The third partnership is of a different nature, but also with an external partner –a joint real estate development deal that has accomplished two goals of the university: endowment growth and expansion of our on-campus housing stock. The university has entered into a long-term land lease with a private developer who is building 340 distinctive apartments on a seven acre parcel which our Board of Trustees designated some years ago for this purpose. These apartments will be available for lease to upper-class students and will serve to satisfy our residential housing requirement. The partner we selected through this process not only paid the university an up-front fee that served to grow our endowment by more than 50%, but also made significant improvements to the campus, including a new classroom building being built as part of the complex.

Of course, there are as many different solutions to the problem of stagnant or even declining net tuition revenue as there are colleges and universities. But I’d suggest that one thing these solutions will have in common is an entrepreneurial approach that expands the definition of who we are as institutions and what we do. Net/net, it’s both an educational and a survival strategy.

To echo Paul Harvey, “and that’s the rest of the story.”

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The failure to indict

Along with many Americans, I was glued to my television set last night awaiting the decision of the grand jury in the killing of Michael Brown. When the announcement was made earlier in the day that the decision would be released hours later rather than immediately, I suspected the result would be no indictment. When the state’s attorney took the podium well after eight p.m. and launched into a prolonged speech, I was certain this was where we were headed.

I’ve been a conscientious consumer of the news around this killing for months now and that’s continued into this morning. One of the claims we make at colleges like Oglethorpe University where I serve as President and Swarthmore College, my alma mater, is that we educate students to sift through all the noise around events like these and make independent, informed judgements about the truth. It turns out that’s awful hard to do, I think, especially in cases as inflamed as this one and with consequences so monumental as they are here.

This morning, here’s the best I can do with my own informed and independent judgement. The decision to seek a grand jury indictment in this case, a decision which was a choice of the prosecutor, played a large role in the outcome. More than that, though, the decision about how the case was presented to the grand jury was largely determinative of the result. In my experience, in most cases that are brought before a grand jury, the prosecutor comes in with a plan and an outcome she desires. That’s the nature of the grand jury system. Exculpatory witnesses are rarely presented. It’s at the trial itself where the jurors hear all sides of the case, not in the grand jury room. The room belongs to the prosecutor and the prosecutor alone. It appears that this was not the case with this grand jury — the prosecutor painted himself almost as a neutral bystander in the process.

When the prosecutor concluded his speech last night, I was left with this impression. After a review of all the evidence in the case, he didn’t believe an indictment was appropriate and he used the grand jury process as a cover for that decision. Now, not being privy to all the evidence, I can’t say for certain whether I think his conclusion was legally incorrect. It’s possible the evidence supported this conclusion. I do believe, however, that our justice system in America is biased against citizens of color from start to finish. There’s lots of history and evidence to support that conclusion. The history of incarceration in America is one place to start that examination, but I’ll leave that broader subject for another day. What I will say today is that I found last night’s defense of the verdict to be suspect and that troubles me greatly. The verdict is consistent with the narrative that justice is still really hard to come by in this country for black Americans, even in 2014, and that ought to be of great concern to all Americans.

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Fighting a war in the age of 24 hours news

Before this week, I’m certain very few of us have ever heard the name of the small town in northern Syria called Kobani. For the past week or so, the ISIS siege of Kobani is all the news can seem to talk about. Well, that’s not entirely true. The one Ebola case diagnosed in America (actually in Texas to be accurate) has consumed the talking heads morning, day, and night. And now with the sentencing of Joe Guidice of “Housewives” fame to jail, both Kobani and Ebola may very well disappear off the screen very soon. But back to Kobani.

I am pretty certain, or at least really hopeful, that our President and his national security team are not watching Fox News and CNN in order to determine their next move in the war against ISIS. Not that these news stations are not fine institutions, but I wouldn’t trust either of them to advise me if it was raining outside let alone when, where, and how we ought to proceed in a war. But my lack of faith doesn’t seem to have slowed either of them down. Not one bit. Yesterday, they were mesmerized by the video of five or six ISIS warriors (at least they look to me like they might possibly be men who belong to ISIS) just two kilometers from the Kobani’s border and asking why in the world have we not killed these people yet . Is it really possible our drone operators were not watching the news carefully enough? These guys were out there for all to see and film. Was the President, perhaps, playing a round of golf and missed all this?

I hate the idea that we are once again fighting a war that seems destined to be a miserable failure. I don’t have any ideas about great alternatives and generally trust those who know far more than I do to at least try to do the right thing. Among the right things to do, I’d include ignoring the advice of our most famous news networks. They haven’t won a war in a very long time, not even the ratings war.

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A florist and a butcher

I was listening this weekend to NPR’s show On the Media and heard this wonderful broadcast about the dying art of newspaper obituaries. The guest was Jim Sheeler, former obit writer for the Rocky Mountain News, which itself became a former newspaper in 2009. Sheeler is a great story teller and always considered the obituaries he wrote as an opportunity to tell a story. And given that everyone’s life is almost always a tale of complexity and contradiction, if one takes the time to listen to friends and family share their stories about a loved one who has passed on, there is much to tell. Sheeler often discovered his next opportunity by reading the blurbs released by funeral homes about the deaths of less than famous people. As in “she was a florist and a butcher.” I would have loved to know that story.

Of course, this all made my think about my own obituary, hopefully to be written years from now by people who mostly looked kindly upon my life. But that life, at least so far, has been both complicated and contradictory. Maybe it will get less so, but I kind of doubt it. Those complexities exist across all areas of what’s most important to me: family, friends, and work. I participated in the end of a first marriage, leaving all the damage of such an event in our wake. I’m almost 20 years into my second marriage and I certainly couldn’t claim to have been an easy partner. Well, I suppose I have tried to claim that, but my wife really has never fully bought into that idea. She does say I have been a very good and interesting one, which she claims is better than easy. Back at ya. I’ve raised three children from birth and a fourth from marriage. I can say without one bit of hesitation that each one is a beautiful young adult. One of my great comforts of my life today is the pride I feel for each of my four children and the sense I have that they will all be just fine from here on out. I do wish, though, my relationship with each was closer and that’s a place of real sadness for me. I’d have to say the same for my three siblings, whom I love dearly. And while my parents have both passed, I was a good son from start to finish. Not as good as they were parents, but that’s an impossible bar, so I don’t have any regrets there.

By and large, I think I have been a good friend to my very small group of best male friends as well as to the many social friends I have met over the years. The best thing I can say is that I show up and I have always believed that matters a lot. And my three best friends have been in that category for a very long time. I love that. While at times I regret not having more close friends, I also recognize I barely do enough to sustain those that I have.

I think in many ways my life is defined by my work. I think my wife would say that and probably my kids as well. And while many people might say what a shame that is, I don’t feel that way. At least not now. I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my life to do work that matters to people and I am mostly proud of how I have managed all that. And my work has always been about people and the relationships that I have formed at work have been a source of great satisfaction, many lasting beyond the time when the formal work relationship ends.

So that’s my life in a nutshell, the first 60 years of it anyway. I was a good son. I have tried to be a good father, brother, and husband. I show up, I hang in there, I work hard, and I try to take care of others the best I can. Come to think of it, just like my father did for 94 years.

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“Keep Alabama White”, Really?

On this Memorial Day weekend, rather than head off to Hilton Head Island as was the plan, Betty and I travelled due west from my home in Atlanta to the city of Birmingham, Alabama. I was privileged to be invited last week to a late afternoon lecture by Doug Jones, former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. During Mr. Jones’ tenure, he led the prosecution team which successfully prosecuted the near 40 year-old cold case against two former KKK members who planted the bomb which killed four young girls attending services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. While the story of these murders is fairly well know even today (and painfully memorialized in Spike Lee’s film, 4 Little Girls), I was mesmerized by Mr. Jones for every minute of his ninety minute talk. Absolutely mesmerized. And thus our change of plans for at least part of the weekend.

Arriving at the church just three days after I had heard the story up close and personal was remarkable. Every bit as powerful an experience as I thought it might be. I had called in advance to make arrangements for a spot on the noon tour and we arrived just a few minutes late. Turns out not really late, as we forgot the time change as one crosses the Georgia/Alabama border. With almost an hour to pass before the tour began, we strolled through Kelly Ingram Park, the scene of so much of the civil rights battles — the water cannons, the vicious dogs — that took place in Birmingham.

The church bombing that occurred on September 15, 1963 was not an isolated event. There had been so many bombings that Birmingham had earned the ugly but appropriate nickname “Bombingham”. And during the months that led up to the murders, the heat had been turned up in the city. Led by the clergy and the SCLC, organized and peaceful protests including economic boycotts of white businesses that had refused to allow any semblance of integration had been met with vicious responses by both the KKK and the police. The center of much of the organized protests was the 16th Street Baptist Church. The fact that there was another bombing in Birmingham couldn’t have surprised anyone. The fact that a church was the location, even the 16th Street Church, could not have been shocking either. But the fact the four young girls were murdered in that bombing shocked the world.

One of the pictures we saw during our visit was of a group of angry white men, women, and children furiously protesting the integration of Birmingham schools. Unless you have seen these photos, you can’t imagine the hatred on these people’s faces. One woman was holding a sign that read: Keep Alabama White. There were uglier words on other signs, but for some reason, that one really struck me. At the time of the Civil War, almost half the population of Alabama was Black. In 1963, a full thirty percent of the state’s population was the same color. Keep Alabama White. Really?

 

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To pray or not to pray. Is that the question?

The Supreme Court is on a roll and not an especially good one in my opinion. (Note to reader: I hail from Philly, the home of really, really good rolls, so I know what I am taking about.) Yesterday, by a 5-4 vote, the Justices allowed Christian prayer at government meetings, saying that we have a tradition in this country of such prayers and that they are largely ceremonial. Well, I can’t argue with point number one, although I will note we have lots of traditions in this country that I wouldn’t brag about — race and gender bias being two that come to mind off the top of my head. As to the court’s second point, I both agree and disagree. I have lived in Atlanta for nine years now and almost every large and public meeting I attend opens with a prayer. That’s just part of life here and frankly, I have never been offended or bothered despite being of the Jewish faith. I am a Rotarian, for example, and we begin each weekly meeting with a prayer. In almost all of those prayers, the person offering words is careful to be inclusive and that’s a nice thing for sure, but even when they are not, it’s never been a big deal to me. One gets used to these things when growing up in a minority religion, or at least I have chosen to get used to them. On the other hand, overly Christian prayers are not, in my view, largely ceremonial. And when sponsored by my government, they are absolutely not ceremonial nor are they harmless.

Imagine for a minute a small town in somewhere USA where the majority of the citizens are Muslim. And the powers-to-be in this small town decide to open their monthly city hall meeting with a prayer to Allah. And imagine the Christians and Jews in the audience being asked to sit quietly by because the right to pray is both historical and ceremonial. Yeah, that would go over well. The truth is that to the majority, it feels ceremonial precisely because they are in the majority. To those in the minority, the exact group the separation of church and state was meant to protect, being required by our government to be subject to prayers to a God and faith in which they don’t believe will never just feel ceremonial. Never.

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Where have we gone from there?

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. Ray was a segregationist who had volunteered for the campaign of George Wallace (who served four terms as Governor of Alabama and ran four times for President) and had dreams of emigrating to Ian Smith’s white-minority regime in Rhodesia.

I’ve been asked to participate next month on a panel sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that King helped to found. He went on to serve SCLC as its first president. Among the subjects of the discussion is the last book of King’s that was published before his death, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. While I had read excerpts before, I had never taken to time to read the book cover to cover. Shame on me. After completing it, I have to add shame on us.

While our country has certainly made progress in the last fifty years in the arena of civil rights and equal opportunity, there’s just too much that is familiar today to stand up and be all that proud of. As King wrote then, the absence of brutality is not the presence of justice. He continued: the majority of Americans consider themselves committed to the idea of justice for all, regardless of race, creed, or color. And they believed then (as they certainly do now) that America is a country that is essentially hospitable to fair play and equal opportunity. We are also inclined to engage in what he calls the fantasy of self-deception. We want so ardently to believe that certain things are true, that we decide they have to be true when reality loudly tells us otherwise.

King, in 1967, takes an inventory of equality and justice that includes access to decent housing, medical care, and education. He looks at educational attainment and college attendance and completion, employment rates and family income. He examines the issues of residential and educational segregation. Not surprisingly, back in the 60’s, on the heels of the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the equality scorecard is miserable on every count. What’s utterly depressing is how little has changed a half a century later. Whether that is all that surprising depends, I imagine, on how deep our fantasy of self-deception is.

In Chapter 3, King begins to play the role of historian for us, recounting how deeply entrenched the roots of racism lie in America. And while he is very careful to note that not all of white America is racist by any means and to point out how much progress has been made on that front, he is also relentless about insisting we face our history. Slavery was a national institution on whose back the economic ascendency of this country was founded. Our Founding Fathers were, of course, deeply committed to the institution. And as we all know, God became the white man’s partner in crime in perpetuating this evil. Being a Black person in America, at the time of his writing and today, I would assert, means being scarred by the history of slavery and the history of intentional family disintegration that we engineered to go along with it. African families were first destroyed across the ocean and then again while crossing the ocean. They were divided on the auction block, by the abolition of the institution of marriage for slaves, and by rampant sexual abuse by slave masters. America is a country of immigrants, for sure, where people from other lands have come and met with varying degrees of success, but none were brought here in chains, burdened by the stigma of color, facing a vicious and calculated plan to destroy family life.

In the face of all this history, we insist now more than ever that that we live in a post-racial country. The schools our children attend are as segregated as they were at the time of King’s death. At the university level, we have seen a massive de-funding of public education over the last thirty years, with access to minority students to a quality education becoming more and more restricted. New voter ID laws are proliferating. It sure looks like to me that despite the symbolic majesty of such things as the election of our first African American President, we are heading backwards in so many ways. Like I said, shame on us.

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