Private institutions have taken a hit lately. While private schools are often misunderstood by the media, the fallout and public outcry after the recent college admissions scandal has done much to malign private colleges and universities, as well as independent schools. There is good reason to be critical.
The fraud perpetrated by Rick Singer and wealthy parents willing to cheat on behalf of their children undoubtedly hurt other students who approached the college admission process with integrity. Of course, the bigger fraud is the way in which many—not all—colleges and universities, both public and private, allow money to influence college admission decisions.
At the most basic level, by relying on standardized tests, colleges encourage the cottage industry of test prep that many Americans cannot afford. If you listen to Season 2 of the podcast Gangster Capitalism, which explores Operation Varsity Blues and the college admission world, you can hear a former admission officer from a major public university describe how legitimate donations can aid a student’s entry into school. Of course, one might argue that those donations fund other students and subsidize access. But, there is a fundamental unfairness that is obvious to a public institution, particularly when colleges present to the public a system that is based on meritocracy.
Who benefits from our system?
As an educator, I see first-hand the anxiety produced by this process and how it negatively affects the spirit and freedom of childhood and parenting. It’s a major reason why we at Colorado Academy try to make the Pre-Kindergarten-Grade 12 learning experience about nurturing the development of healthy individuals in a supportive community rather than focusing on college outcomes.
For decades, independent schools built their “value proposition” around college matriculation; many still do, to the detriment of student learning and health. The author Paul Tough, who visited CA on September 25, has written a book, The Years That Matter Most: How Colleges Make Or Break Us, that piles on this criticism. He explores the “admissions industrial complex” and goes into detail about how broken our system is. In the book, he takes on the College Board, the problems of standardized testing, and the challenges colleges face in living up to their public purpose of promoting social mobility. (The College Board has responded on their website with a detailed response to Tough’s allegations.)
This college admission story has dovetailed with a broader, negative reaction to the privilege of elites by the American public. In recent years, we have seen bad actors, like Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein, use their power and money to shield their crimes. Tough’s excellent research notes that a college degree has reinforced the status quo. After WWII, the GI Bill helped create social mobility for millions of Americans. That is not the same today. Tough notes, “The ones who benefit the most from the system tend to be wealthy, talented, and well-connected. The ones who benefit the least tend to be from families that are deprived, isolated, or fractured, or all three.”
Tough continues: “There is plenty of evidence that Americans believe in the transformative power of education just as much as they did a century ago. What is different today is that we tend to consider that transformation in individual terms rather than collective ones. Over the last few decades, we have come to think of higher education principally as a competitive marketplace, one where our natural goal is to get the best we can for ourselves or our children or our institution, even at the expense of others.”
What is the public purpose of an independent school?
This summer I found myself thinking about independent schools and our public purpose. As another journalist has observed: “Clearly the lawmakers of our land, past and present, recognized a public purpose for independent schools and afforded nonprofit independents both favorable tax status and freedom from considerable program regulation. You can tap your own political understandings to decide whether this independence was to enable greater choice or to enshrine and protect (at least in the old days) certain religious persuasions or even economic elites. I like to think that the former prevailed, and that the best outcome would have been, and actually has been, the creation of a wide range of schools with a wide range of purposes and values.”
In my experience and conversations with heads of schools, both nationally and locally, the independent school industry is one that is focused on creating relevant and meaningful programming to help students be change agents and societal leaders. Issues of justice, equity, and inclusion are important topics among school heads. Independent schools offer choice to parents who care about their child’s education. There is greater accountability in our world, because we exist in a competitive universe. We attract and retain teachers who want to teach in the best ways possible and not be beholden to outside interference. The freedom that schools have to develop curriculum without red tape makes us nimble and responsive. It also allows us to create a high-quality education.
With the growth of charter schools, there is a greater sense of competition among all schools, public and private. But, teachers rarely let these distinctions get in the way of sharing pedagogy and approaches. Just a few years ago, CA hosted a TEDx Conference in which we invited local public and independent school leaders and teachers to share ideas, which supports a public good. More and more, schools have various types of outreach programming, leveraging school resources for the public good. Our Horizons program that serves nearly two hundred low-income students in the summer is a great example.
‘Learning is the only thing that never fails’
We know that CA graduates go on to pursue meaningful careers. We have alumni in nearly every sector of the economy: health care, the military, business, law, education, and non-profit work. These graduates emerged from a school that cares deeply about values and character. Our day-to-day work with students is focused, not only on expanding one’s intellectual potential, but also on developing kind and empathetic citizens. We have long done this as a school, but we are much more intentional about it now. Our teachers and administrative leaders model this as they develop and enforce ethical policies and practices.
Our commitment to financial aid is one that serves a larger public benefit. Five percent of last year’s Senior class were the first in their families to go to college. We have nearly 190 students on financial assistance. My goal for my next phase of leadership at CA is to grow our financial aid endowment so that we can serve a greater number of families and students. The only thing that limits this goal is our resources.
The school’s recent Alchemist honorees, Doug and Debbie Dennis, talked about how financial aid must be funded, because, said Debbie, “without those students, this would not be the school that it is.”
At CA, we know that our financial aid program can change the trajectory of students’ and families’ lives. Going to college matters, and when a student is prepared the way we prepare students, they are in a better position to take advantage that all higher education has to offer.
Many years ago, my choice to be a teacher was based on my desire to teach history. I wanted to get in the classroom and help my students see the value of knowing our past and seeing its relevance to our lives. As I was eventually pulled into leadership positions in schools, I was forced to think more globally. I saw the potential of a school leader to move an entire learning community in a direction that could be more joyful and healthy and to promote ethical leadership. I also saw the potential of a school like CA to have a larger impact on society. And that is something we hold to steadfastly.
It is like T.H. White’s description of learning in The Once and Future King. “Learning is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”