Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Wake Forest’s Nathan O. Hatch Does the Right Thing

By Bernie Quigley

For The Hill 7/6/08

Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, doesn’t like to conspicuously make waves. It is not in the desired nature of this region in the heart of the South. But several weeks ago this venerable old Southern institution got big headlines when it announced that it intended to drop SATs as mandatory for incoming freshmen in an effort to ease stress on student test takers.

First commentary was that it was a big mistake. But Wake Forest President Nathan O. Hatch was right to drop mandatory SATs. Others will soon follow.

Wake Forest usually comes to mind up here in New England when either Maya Angelou, who teaches there, is mentioned, or Arnold Palmer, who, like a bunch of other great golfers, went to school there.

A few schools in recent years have dropped mandatory SATs – Bowdoin, Bates, Hamilton, Sarah Lawrence, Middlebury – and on first impression Wake Forest appeared to be changing company. It appeared to be comparing itself with a tradition of elite New England schools. Way good schools, but of a persuasion that the traditional Baptist preacher in the North Carolina Piedmont or Yadkin County tobacco farmer might consider kind of uppity.

Wake Forest’s “traditional constituency” – as those folks are so-called by admissions officers – would be more likely to consider going to UNC at Chapel Hill, Duke or University of Richmond. These are the schools which Wake Forest has traditionally competed with for students. But in recent years it has risen to top national rankings and today students from all over the world seek attendance. Some from India with very high SATs. Some from Hong Kong with high SATs and a whole lot of cash.

Another passing thought was that Wake Forest, ranked 30 among national universities by U.S. News and World Report, isn’t supposed to initiate big deal changes like this. Harvard is supposed to do that, or possibly Yale or Stanford, then everybody else is supposed to follow after that and do what they do. Wake Forest has only been in with this heady crowd the last 15 years or so.

Hatch recently published an op-ed in The Washington Post to explain his reasoning.

“For several years, a growing body of research has made clear that America’s top colleges and universities are doing a poor job of helping some young people realize a critical part of the American dream: That anyone, no matter where he or she begins in life, has the chance to rise to the top,” he wrote.

Students from the top quarter of the socioeconomic hierarchy are 25 times more likely to attend a “top tier” college than students for the bottom quarter, he says. And a study of 78,000 students in California found that SAT scores correlated with family income but not with college grades. In fact, SAT was the poorest predictor of college performance when compared with high school grades and performance on subject tests. Other studies have found that such factors as high school class ranking and strength of the high school course load are better predictors.

I happen to have worked as a press person for a university alumni office in a previous millennium and it happens to have been Wake Forest’s. College administrators read books to help them understand changing cultural trends and patterns, particularly generational patterns, as generations are their business. Hatch is the first university President to fully understand that we have come to the end of one era and the beginning of another and to initiate an important public policy initiative based on that understanding.

Every major college and university faced a dilemma between the 1960s and the 1990s. Economy was booming and so was social awareness. The Civil Rights Movement brought a responsible attempt by most schools including Wake Forest to bring in those who had been ignored; that is, to bring in those who had been systematically excluded from the economy and the culture at large by institutionalized segregation. In North Carolina and the South in particular that meant black folk who were poor folk; some very poor. Many rural and barely educated.

It was not an easy task as the poor do not share the same values, attitudes and cultural leanings and yearnings as the better off. And they would not have the same SAT scores. So bringing them into the best universities would drop the general SAT scores for the school. And SAT scores were vitally important then to colleges and universities because it was a time of rising economy and there was a high demand and public need for highest quality education for a growing middle class. A drop in SAT scores would critically lower the school’s profile.

Black students from middle-class and wealthy backgrounds became highly sought after. They integrated nicely with the white kids of the same economic backgrounds. Increasingly, the original mandate began to drift and the poor became increasingly ignored.

Enter the age of diversity and globalization. When the word diversity became universally ingrained in the lexicon in the early 1990s, the original paradigm permanently shifted. The poverty part of the equation which; the economic element and the core issue of integration was almost universally abandoned. Suddenly, you could not talk to a college President whether from Harvard or a minor junior college in Florida without hearing the word diversity within the first phrases. But as I was told by one black sociologist at the time: They’d begun substituting Mexicans for black people. They were substituting Chinese people for black people. They weren’t. But what they were doing was substituting wealthy people from around the world and some of the wealthiest people on the face of the earth, for poor people in the South and from the blighted cities up North.

The age of diversity and globalization can be seen from a marketing perspective as bringing a full shift in paradigm. It came fast on the heels of the age of leadership and excellence. Now we are entering a new age. It doesn’t have a name yet but it began January 4, 2008, the day after Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus with 39% of the vote and Hillary Clinton came in third with 29%.

President Hatch is now a gatekeeper to this age. He has proposed a new formula in which great colleges like Wake Forest and Middlebury and Harvard and Stanford can keep their SAT numbers and other data vital to marketing high, as they must do to bring in the best students they can get worldwide and properly educate them, and also bring in and fully include those deserving from economic backgrounds which had been previously excluded.

Hatch has brought us back to our first principles and to our full range of responsibilities. He has provided colleges with a new model and possibly a standard maxim for the new century and he has done the right thing.

3 comments:

Kate Inman said...

At a small school such as Wake Forest University, diversity would be a wonderful addition to the school, but adequate funding is absolutely necessary. Mr. Quigley is exactly right in the fact that the economy has been booming in the past, but as we experience an economic downturn where more and more students require financial aide, who will foot the bill for Wake's kind hearted attempt to let those less fortunate attend a school that costs over forty thousand dollars a year to attend? My older brother graduated from Wake Forest in 1999 and his tuition was less than half of what it will be for my upcoming senior year. Is it not a contradiction to have tuition rising fifty percent in ten years and implementing a program that will admit even more students who cannot afford tuition? Another problem arises with this situation; there is a limited pool of scholarship money to be granted and as more and more need based students draw from this pool, each student will receive less and less. Much of this need based money does come from state and federal governments and will rise with demand, but a small school such as Wake does have less scholarship money to offer and more extra expenses such as books, travel to and from school, living expenses, etc. Wake Forest already has a blind admissions policy that does not look at the applicants needs prior to admitting them. There are Universities in this country that have more students currently on campus than Wake Forest has living alumni. Even with the success many Wake grads have, there is simply not the endowment that a larger, more well known institution has. I am not condemning the idea behind not making the SAT mandatory, but I am simply pointing out that it is not an economically sound decision for an institution such as Wake Forest that does not have the same financial backing that many other top-tier schools have. I love Wake Forest and respect the institution immensely, but I worry that some people want Wake to become synonymous with Duke and Ivy League schools when most people are happy to let Wake go on being the under recognized gem of a true Southern University.

Bernie Quigley said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Kate. You identified the problem directly. Far as I can see Dr. Hatch is following conscience first and hoping the cash will come from somewhere. Wake doesn’t have deep pockets like Emory and Vanderbilt where I have children. Far as I understand it Wake has no vast annual fund like Coke that keeps on giving. Dr. Hatch is going to have to pioneer a new paradigm. When I worked at Wake Forest I knew people with whom I was endlessly impressed and acquaintance with them matured my nature. People like Marcellus Waddill, Ed Wilson, Pen Banks, David Smiley and Tom Gossett. These people were from the oldest North Carolina and Southern traditions and your last name suggests that you and your brother are as well as there are lots of Inmans in the western part of NC. They went to college when colleges had no money at all. Some of the smaller regional schools like Berea College where Louise Gossett went – and she was considered the smartest person on campus – have kept the small college tradition without going national. As I understand it, students at Berea do not pay tuition at all. The problem with going national – round 1995 or so Wake had its U.S. News and World Report classification changed from regional to national – is a little like going from a college to a university – many more things to teach, but many, many more expenses as well. Two suggestions: advance a general core set of studies (drop esoteric and specialty depts.) and regionalization. In order to fulfill this new responsibility Dr. Hatch might have to take bold moves. I think they should drop a few grad programs and departments and focus on undergraduate. Keep the law and medical school but become a “college” again in a sense. Modeling themselves as a Southern Middlebury is not a bad idea. Bard, Middlebury, and some of the other schools mentioned by Dr. Hatch are national and global as all good schools are today. But as I live up here I can assure you that there is a particularly northern New England sensibility that is advanced in this schools and people go there to acquire it or to participate within that specific culture. There is a natural “regionalization” to these schools. The problem felt when Wake went from a regional to a national school was that it could lose its regional identity. Wake has kept its identity compared to Emory, Vanderbilt and Davidson and Duke. It should strive to retain it. Economies expand and contract; when we expand we go national or global; when we contract we go regional. Virginia Tech and a few other schools in the region are offering in-state tuition to surrounding states and developing a regional outlook in what is being called a “community tier economy.” Y’all might do the same. It is the central problem you bring up, but not to always be looking on the bright side but, it is better not to be thoroughly owned by a singular corporation or several, like some of the others.

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