The following is a conversation between David Wippman, President of Hamilton College, Aron Ain, Member of the Board of Trustees, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: There hasn’t been a Broadway show that has captured the public’s imagination in quite the same way that “Hamilton” has. And, Oh, about 250 miles northwest of Broadway, in Clinton, New York, there’s another Hamilton. And this one has captured the attention of scholars, parents and students. It’s Hamilton College, named after the subject of that Broadway musical. And it’s a pleasure for me to welcome to the show the President of Hamilton College, David Wippman, as well as a member of their Board of Trustees, Aron Ain. Good evening, gentlemen, and thanks for being with us this evening!
David: Thanks so much for having us.
Aron: Yes, thank you.
Denver: David, for those listeners who may not be familiar with Hamilton College, tell us about the school and its history.
David: So, we like to say that before there was the musical, there was the college, and I’d say it’s about 200 years before. The college actually started as a project of a man named Reverend Samuel Kirkland in 1793. And he set up an academy that was intended to educate the children of white settlers in the area, and the children of Oneida Indians. He went to George Washington for support for his educational plan and got his support, and that of Alexander Hamilton, who eventually lent his name to the college. The three chartered it as a college in 1812, and not too many years ago, we celebrated the bicentennial. So it’s a residential liberal arts college of about 1,900 students located in Clinton, New York.
Denver: Which is where?
David: Clinton, New York is about four hours from New York City. It’s about an hour, a little less, east of Syracuse.
What need-blind does is make it possible for anyone to apply to the college, whether they have an ability to pay the full tuition–or any tuition, in fact, or any fees–to go to the college.
Denver: Aron, let me ask you about something that is quite unique to Hamilton. There are not many colleges and universities that are “need-blind” when it comes to admission… three, perhaps four dozen in the entire country. What exactly does it mean to be need-blind and how did the school ultimately come to this decision?
Aron: Sure. Hamilton has always been a college that really takes very seriously its role in making itself available to students of all backgrounds, all abilities. And as you know, colleges today are quite expensive. And so the college– part of its ethos– is that it wants to be as open and available to as many people as possible. So, what need-blind does is make it possible for anyone to apply to the college, whether they have an ability to pay the full tuition– or any tuition, in fact, or any fees– to go to the college. So the admissions department does not take into account whether someone has the ability to pay to go to school when we’re making decisions about who can come to the school.
Now, this is not easy to do. It really took the deep support of lots of people who love Hamilton, including the trustees and parents and staff and faculty and a broad group of supporters– that raised over $40 million, starting in 2010– to go and create an endowment to be able to make it possible for Hamilton to be need-blind. And today, Hamilton is completely need-blind. Anyone who gets in and has a demonstrated need… that they need financial support… can come and be part of Hamilton College
Denver: That’s absolutely fantastic. And this all happened spontaneously at a meeting here in New York at the Yale Club?
Aron: That’s right. So it was a dream of the leadership. The staff, the executive leadership of the school, the professionals, as well as members of the board wanted to do it and came up with how much it was going to cost. And it was determined that it was going to cost about $2 million a year to be need-blind– the additional financial aid that was required. And if you think about an endowment, it meant to raise about $40 million of endowed funds. We thought how long would that take. And at that meeting, members of the board of trustees, one by one, raised their hand and said, “Let’s not wait. I’ll pledge this; I’ll pledge that; I’ll pledge this!” And before the meeting was over, there was enough money raised to get the need-blind started immediately. Really a wonderful moment! And really a reflection of what the values of the school are!
Hamilton is preparing students for a lifetime of not just economic success and career success,… but we’re preparing them for lives of meaning and purpose, and that’s something that you can’t really put a price tag on.
Denver: Absolutely. That is a great moment in Hamilton history. Well, let’s talk a little bit, David, about the cost of college. As you know, in recent years people have questioned the value of a college education, and specifically, a liberal arts education. Accenture did a college graduate survey, and 51% of college graduates consider themselves to be underemployed. A Gallup poll recently came out indicating that 42% of Americans believe college is not necessary for success. That is a 13% drop from 2009. So, what do you make of these findings? And what’s the case you would make today for getting a liberal arts education?
David: So, it may be true that college isn’t necessary for success, but I can tell you it’s an enormous advantage. And if you look at the data, what I think you’ll find is that there is a huge wage premium for anyone with a four-year college degree. And the better the institution you attend, the more likely you are to benefit from that premium. I also would say to people, it’s probably a mistake to focus only on dollars and cents when you’re looking at return on investment. We are preparing students for a lifetime of not just economic success and career success, although we do do that, but we’re preparing them for lives of meaning and purpose. And that’s something that you can’t really put a price tag on.
So, what I would say to parents or to students who are concerned about reports that you can’t do well with a liberal arts degree: The statistics don’t bear that out. Our graduates are doing great, and so are graduates of peer institutions. You may have to be a little bit more creative sometimes in your career search, but you are given the tools you need to succeed. And you’re given the tools you need to have a really rich and productive life.
Denver: Very well said. And I think you’re also looking at nations who are looking at GDP and wondered how we ever got to the point where we measure the success of the nation based on GDP, and GDP alone. It really seems to be quite limited. Is the concept of a liberal arts education changing in the 21st century, where you are embedding engineering and computer science and so on, or is it still pretty much the classical one we all think of? (more…)