What Do You Really Care About?

No college information session would be complete without a colorful Powerpoint peppered with grandiose value statements. Diversity! Sustainability! Intellectual excellence! If you’re bored yet, I get it: so am I. As a college consultant, I have a professional obligation to attend many such sessions, so allow me to share a rather poorly kept secret with you: they’re all pretty much the same. If you are a high school junior or the parent of a high school junior, you’ve likely discovered this on your own. By no means is it my intention to malign the sincerity of these institutions or dismiss the hard work of admissions officers. But the fact is, distinguishing between one college or university and the next is challenging. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, they are all working to accomplish more or less the same thing. So how do we differentiate between one school and another? And more importantly, how do we know a school reflects our values?

As I pondered this question during a recent information session, I recalled “Food Fight”: an early episode of Malcom Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, in which he compares two elite liberal arts colleges, Vassar* and Bowdoin. On the surface, Vassar and Bowdoin are quite similar. As of writing, both are ranked among the top fifteen liberal arts colleges in the United States. Each has a tuition cost of around $60,000 a year and an endowment well above a billion dollars (though Bowdoin’s is about double that of Vassar’s). Both are in the Northeast, with Vassar located about two hours north of New York City and Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine not too far from Portland. Both have spectacular campuses replete with Gothic architecture and gorgeous, sprawling, multi-centenary trees. But in this episode of his podcast, released in 2016, Gladwell focuses on something else: the food.

An Aside on Gladwell

But before we get into that, a brief parenthesis. While I admit it somewhat reluctantly, I am a big fan of Malcom Gladwell: reluctantly, because his work is often accused (not incorrectly) of gross oversimplification; a fan because Gladwell is a second-to-none storyteller capable of turning even the driest of topics (golf course landscaping, for instance) into riveting social commentary. Even if his methods are imperfect, Gladwell has a remarkable knack for eliciting new ways of thinking about otherwise mundane topics, and for that he deserves credit. 

Food Fight

In “Food Fight,” Gladwell examines two facets of Vassar and Bowdoin’s budgets: dining services and financial aid. He interviews Bowdoin students who describe the university’s gastronomical offering as very nearly worthy of a Michelin star, and conversely, Vassar students whose descriptions of their culinary experience include phrases like “very sad, like, meat sandwich thing,” and words like “pasty” and “indigestion.” Yet while Bowdoin excels at providing a healthy and appealing diet, Gladwell argues, it fails miserably at providing adequate financial aid to students from low socioeconomic statuses—an area where Vassar excels. 

The episode goes on to explain how colleges and universities fund their budgets: through fees (mainly tuition), on the one hand, and returns on their endowments, on the other. In order to ensure its survival, any university must ensure that it has a healthy number of students whose families can afford to pay full tuition. Yet universities espousing diversity as a core value must also enroll students whose families cannot afford to pay full tuition—families who rely on financial aid. For universities not enjoying the benefits of an enormous financial endowment, there is thus an inevitable push and pull between financial survival and commitment to social values. And yet, Gladwell goes on to explain, the less money universities funnel into amenities (like delicious food, state-of-the-art athletic facilities, and luxury accommodations), the harder it is for them to attract full-pay students. The Catch-22 is that colleges like Vassar, where financial aid to support low-SES students accounts for the lion’s share of the budget and less money is available for gourmet meals, struggle to appeal to students who can afford to pay full tuition. By committing themselves to providing tuition grants to the families who rely on them, schools like Vassar thus risk their very survival.

More for dramatic effect than argumentative accuracy, Gladwell’s conclusion doesn’t pull any punches:

There’s only one solution. If you’re looking at liberal arts colleges, don’t go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin. Don’t give money to Bowdoin or to any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall. Because every time you support a school that spends its money on amazing food, every time you cast a vote in favor of eggplant parmesan pancakes and lobster bakes and venison during deer season, you’re making it harder and harder for someone like [former president of Vassar College] Catharine Hill to create opportunities for poor kids. Suck it up and go to Vassar. Send a message to the Bowdoins of the world about what really matters.

For Gladwell, Bowdoin’s focus on amenities makes it a sellout, while Vassar’s noble dedication to diversity crowns it a champion of social justice. As I stated earlier, Gladwell tends to oversimplify, and since Gladwell published this episode, plenty of holes have been poked in his arguments. For example, Bowdoin’s larger endowment means larger returns and, consequently, greater budgetary wiggle room. Also, by no means does providing delicious food mean that financial aid must inevitably be neglected. Indeed, poor quality food can create its own problems. This article from Medium does a great job addressing, among other things, additional aspects of social justice implicated in university catering choices. On the other hand, this review of the episode from Inside Higher Ed approached Bowdoin to get a better sense of their side of the story (to which the episode gives recklessly short shrift).

Focusing on Values

Yet here we come full circle, for as misleading as Gladwell’s conclusions are, he makes one very good point; one that I think can be helpful to students and families as they begin to make important choices about colleges and universities: how a university spends its money is one of the truest reflections of its values. So as you attend university information sessions and visit campuses, if the school flaunts brand new single rooms for every student or regular filet mignon dinners, ask yourself not only what they are providing, but also what they are not. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with such amenities. Creature comforts and nutrition have their place, and some students may have strong reasons to require them. But this is just an example. The point is this: when you are choosing a university, ask yourself whether the institutional values on their website are indeed reflected in their budgetary decisions, and in turn whether they reflect the values you want to see and espouse in the world.

In short, do your research! Here are a few resources to help you get started:

  • The New York Times “Top Colleges Doing the Most for the American Dream” ranks schools based on the strength of their commitment to economic diversity. Gladwell mentions this in “Food Fight” and to this day, Vassar is still among the top 15. Bowdoin has also risen a few spots.
  • Here is a website that allows you to compare the ways different universities spend money according to expenditure category.
  • This list includes US universities that have divested from fossil fuels. This one lists UK universities “committed to pursuing divestment.”
  • Degree Choices has compiled this list of the most progressive US universities based on values of inclusivity, sustainability, free speech, diversity, health and wellbeing. For an opposing take, see The 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech from The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

As for Revisionist History, in spite of its flaws, I recommend it. Gladwell addresses many fascinating topics, returning frequently to that of higher education, and he has a unique ability to get you thinking. Just remember that Revisionist History is more entertainment than information, and Gladwell takes his creative liberties accordingly—so allow yourself to enjoy a healthy portion of thought-provoking inspiration but take the conclusions with a grain of salt.

*In full disclosure, I am a proud Vassar alum, so I may not be entirely impartial on this comparison. I’ll own that.

NOTE: This article first appeared on the website of our colleagues at Distinctive College Consulting.