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"There is no doubt in my mind that Macalester's commitment to access is more deep-rooted and tangible than what can be found at the vast majority of our peers."

 

 

   

A Letter from President Rosenberg
on Macalester's Commitment to Quality and Access

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invested in what happens at Macalester. The question here—both an ethical and a practical one, I think—is how do we balance the good of providing access against the good of providing the best possible education for the students we exist to serve?

Spending less on students

This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that Macalester now receives, and has long received, less philanthropic support than do most of our peers: more dollars flow out in the form of aid while fewer dollars flow in from charitable gifts. By nearly any measure—overall giving, annual fund giving, percentage of alumni who contribute—Macalester continues to lag well below the median in our peer group, a reality we are working energetically and with some success to change, a reality that I am convinced will change, but a part of our history and our present nonetheless. Our endowment, while healthy, is about average within that peer group and is not nearly large enough to fund even a majority of the operations of the college. One telling way of measuring our commitment to access is to note that the amount we spent on financial aid in 2003–2004 ($20 million) comprised about 80 percent of our total endowment distribution for the year—meaning that we might describe the endowment as being used chiefly to support access and only marginally to support the activities of the college. That number is projected to rise to 89 percent in 2004–2005 and to nearly 100 percent in 2005–2006.

This combination of factors means that at present Macalester is able to spend considerably less on our students than do most of our peers. In 2002–2003, for instance, our expenditures per student exclusive of financial aid were $9,000 less than at Carleton, $8,000 less than at Hamilton and $8,000 less than at Colby, all of which have endowments of roughly the same size as our own. We spent less per student than Kenyon, Bates and Connecticut College, each of whose endowments is less than half of our own.

Such numbers may seem abstract and irrelevant; more concrete are these facts:

  • The compensation of our faculty has in recent years been falling relative to the compensation of their peers.
  • Our staff size per student is the lowest within our 40-school comparison group, meaning that the people who clean the residence halls and process the data and provide counseling to our students are working extraordinarily hard to meet the needs and expectations of those they serve.
  • Our expenditures in such critical areas as technology and the library are also well below average.
  • Our student:faculty ratio, one of the most visible indicators of quality at liberal arts colleges, has slipped from 10:1 to 11:1.
  • For three consecutive years we have decreased our controllable non-personnel expenses and have done much more cutting than adding.

Though we must assiduously seek out opportunities to be more efficient and cost-effective, we have in recent years hardly been profligate.

Most troubling of all may be the fact that the problem appears to be growing: our rate of tuition discount (along with our need to cut budgets) has for a decade been increasing much more quickly than at other top liberal arts colleges.

Of course, resources are not the only indicator of excellence, but they are in education, as in virtually any other enterprise, an important indicator: while financial investment is no guarantee of academic quality, the absence of such investment pretty much guarantees that quality will suffer. And we seek quality not to satisfy some external audience or to chase reputation, but to fulfill our own internal and intrinsic responsibility to educate global citizens and leaders at the highest possible level. To shirk that responsibility by diluting the quality of a Macalester education would be to neglect our primary social obligation and to squander the glorious opportunities with which this college is presented.

Balancing access and quality

So how do we confront this dilemma? The answer cannot be to turn away from the challenge because it is complex and uncomfortable to discuss or to retreat behind phrases that often conceal more than they reveal. "Need-blind," for instance, is itself a somewhat misleading term. At Macalester we have for years been "need-blind" only for

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