Desert Educator

There are few institutions that generate more affection in the hearts of donors than excellent small colleges. And no college in America is smaller, nor really more excellent, than Deep Springs, an idiosyncratic place nestled a mile above sea level in the California high desert bordered by the White and Inyo mountain ranges. At any one time, Deep Springs is home to two dozen of the most academically qualified young men in America, who are attracted by its offer of two years of intense academic study, hard ranch work for 20 hours per week, and practical lessons in self-governance—all 100 percent free. Its graduates usually go on to complete their degrees at America’s most prestigious universities, and more than half of all attendees have ended up with doctoral degrees.

All this is precisely as Lucien Nunn intended. Continue reading “Desert Educator”

Eclectically Orthodox

Ralph Waldo Beeson was legendarily cheap when it came to treating himself. Once, when given some new corduroys, the insurance executive turned them down on account of already owning a pair. At his modest house just south of Birmingham, he often chose not to operate the air conditioning during brutal Alabama summers, saying it “costs a fortune to run that thing.” But just down the hill from his house, he had a view of Samford University—to which he was nothing but generous.

As a 29-year-old life insurance salesman, Beeson had poured his savings into the stock of his company, Liberty National, just after the crash of 1929. The bet paid off handsomely, and he cashed in for $100 million in the 1980s. Continue reading “Eclectically Orthodox”

New U.

Scan the rankings of the world’s best universities and you may spot a few patterns. First, you will probably notice that, in every major survey, virtually all of the world’s 20 best schools are located in English-speaking countries. Next, within this elite cohort, it is hard to miss America’s dominance: the surveys usually place about 15 of the world’s top 20 universities in the United States. (Please see the table below.)

And if you look closer, you may notice that, among the American universities, the majority are private schools. The names of the schools themselves are revealing. They are not usually named for cities or states. Often they bear the names of their patrons: John Harvard and Elihu Yale; Ezra Cornell and Johns Hopkins; Leland Stanford and James B. Duke. It is striking that of the top 20 schools on earth, more than half were funded, built, and sustained by wealthy Americans who took it upon themselves to start an institution of higher learning. Continue reading “New U.”

Pilgrims’ Progress

This article originally appeared as a sidebar to “New U.”

Desires—like Tom Monaghan’s—to strengthen religious faith are responsible for a flurry of new colleges in recent decades. In 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a decree on Catholic identity for new Catholic colleges and universities. Ex Corde colleges submit to the authority of their local bishops and to the teachings of the Church. Twenty-three institutions now adhere to it, including several founded prior to its promulgation, like the Catholic University of America. But nine have been founded since 1970, and five since 1990—most recently John Paul the Great University, a media-focused school in San Diego, and Wyoming Catholic College in the small town of Lander. Continue reading “Pilgrims’ Progress”

Intellectual Capital

New York City
“Scary,” says Marilyn Fedak. She looks out the window from her corner office. Outside, a winter storm is raging. Whirling snow obscures the view of the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center from her 39th-floor windows. In a few hours, the heavy snowfall will snarl travel and down power lines from D.C. to Boston. She pauses for a moment.

“It was so scary,” Fedak explains. “It’s not like I haven’t been through bear markets before. But this one was different. I don’t think people realize how close we came to the system breaking down. I felt like everything I had learned about the markets and investing over 40 years wasn’t working as it should.” Continue reading “Intellectual Capital”

High-Flying Philanthropy

Gretchen Reed loves to fly. She owns not one, not two, but eighteen restored, antique aircraft—many of which are still flown. She’s especially fond of her Aeronca Champion, a classic, two-seat, single-engine, fixed-gear airplane, flown from her own, private airport in northeastern Ohio.

Reed is not only an avid aviatrix. With the gift of her airport and collection to Lake Erie College in Ohio, she has proven herself an avid philanthropist. Continue reading “High-Flying Philanthropy”

The Old College Try

Forty-three. That’s the percentage of college freshmen who will drop out of school before getting a bachelor’s degree. Community colleges—even worse. There, over 69 percent of students will drop out before receiving a credential. That means only 57 percent of college freshmen—and a mere 31 percent of first-years in junior college—will earn the degree they ostensibly set out to obtain. By any measure, that’s a failing grade.

Bill Gates is a college drop-out—but he knows he’s the exception that proves the rule. That’s why he has committed his foundation to doubling the number of low-income people who earn a post-secondary credential by age 26. Continue reading “The Old College Try”

Does It Have To Be College?

This article is a sidebar to “The Old College Try,” Philanthropy, spring 2010.

The weight of philanthropic (and elite) opinion rests on the idea that college is necessary for success in modern American life—and for many, college means a four-year degree. The dialogue is changing somewhat—see, for example, the rise of the more inclusive goal of a “high-quality post-secondary credential” and more support for community colleges—but not enough for some. Critics of this ideal include Charles Murray (in his widely discussed Real Education) and Matthew Crawford (in his best-selling Shop Class as Soulcraft). Moreover, some donors are frustrated at the lingering bias toward four-year degrees and against vocational or career-focused training.

Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel, argues that to make the four-year degree the standard is to erect a “ladder to the sun,” when many people would be happy with “a ladder to a middle-class existence.”

Grove conducted an informal survey of philanthropic higher ed initiatives in the San Francisco Bay area. “Every single program . . . emphasizes four-year college,” he says. He took a different approach. Continue reading “Does It Have To Be College?”

Two Big Foundations, Two Big Goals

This article is a sidebar to “The Old College Try,” Philanthropy, spring 2010.

After Warren Buffett pledged the lion’s share of his fortune (the gift was valued at $37 billion at the time) to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006, the foundation had an opportunity to expand its portfolio. “After tons of research and meeting with policy experts, practitioners, and other foundations, we came back to what has been the foundation’s domestic focus for the past eight years . . . because the evidence spoke clearly,” said Hilary Pennington, the Gates Foundation’s director of education, post-secondary success, and special initiatives, in 2008. “The highest-leverage investment we can make—education. This time, post-secondary education. And even more specifically, post-secondary success.” Continue reading “Two Big Foundations, Two Big Goals”