November 1, 2023
It Is Possible
Have you ever noticed that when you are talking with someone who is facing something that seems like an impossibility, one of the first challenges is just getting that person to acknowledge the reality of the problem at hand? There is a strange phenomenon that happens here. The worse the problem is, the harder it is for a person to acknowledge its existence. I think that this is because we intuitively feel when something is hopeless; therefore, we attempt to save ourselves from it simply by refraining from acknowledging its existence. We become like the child who thinks that he can escape from a difficult situation simply by covering his eyes.
In these situations, what often can nudge someone’s eyes to open and acknowledge the problem is simply to show them that a solution is possible. As long as we think no solution can be found, there is really no use in noticing the problem. But the second a solution could actually exist, suddenly it seems possible that something can and should be done.
College leadership in America currently has its hands over its eyes. As I have been explaining in this series, there is a massive problem in the world of higher education. I worked through the reasons for skyrocketing tuition. I also explained the ridiculous strategy that colleges use to discount tuition. And then, I pointed out how colleges are incentivizing the obscene student loan debt that millions of students are carrying. A crisis is looming. But you will find that college presidents are the last ones in the room willing to acknowledge it. I believe that a big part of the reluctance to acknowledge this crisis is simply the fact that they don’t believe it is possible to exist without federal money. But what if it were possible for a college to survive financially while remaining completely independent of Pell Grants and federal financial aid?
A crisis is looming. But you will find that college presidents are the last ones in the room willing to acknowledge it.
The good news is that this question is not a hypothetical speculation. There are actual examples of colleges surviving without any federal money. Probably the most well-known example of this is Michigan’s Hillsdale College. Seeing the strings attached to federal money back in the 1970s, Hillsdale withdrew from accepting Title IV money. The college compensated for this lost revenue by combining frugality with ambitious fundraising. Fifty years later, the result of this discipline and focus is an endowment nearing a billion dollars that supports a student body of approximately 1,500. That is a very sustainable financial situation.
Another great example of this gutsy decision is Grove City College, located in rural Pennsylvania. In the 1980s, Grove City began a battle with the federal government over Title IV money. Seeing the hopelessness of maintaining their own integrity while depending on these monies, Grove City withdrew from participation in the Pell Grant program in 1988. In 1996, the college replaced federally subsidized student loans with its own private student loan offer. The school now enrolls approximately 2,400 students and is supported by an endowment a little over $100 million.
By not accepting any of the Title IV money, we are free to focus our administration on the task of leading the school rather than needless bureaucratic reporting. Our amenities are deliberately limited.
Both Hillsdale and Grove City are able to sustain their financial viability by supplementing from their endowments—Hillsdale obviously quite a lot more so than Grove City. But could a college take the plunge away from federal money, right now, without the safety net of a nine-figure endowment? Actually, there are a number of small colleges doing just that. My own institution, New Saint Andrews College, was founded in 1994 with no endowment and no federal money. Our tuition for the 2023-2024 academic year is $15,700, almost one-third of the average private Christian liberal arts college. By not accepting any of the Title IV money, we are free to focus our administration on the task of leading the school rather than needless bureaucratic reporting. Our amenities are deliberately limited. We have no football team, no climbing wall, no residence halls, and no cafeteria. Instead, we focus on the actual job of educating students with the most robust and faithful education that we can give. And the results, I believe, are truly remarkable.
To say that my own school, New Saint Andrews College, is light on amenities would be an understatement. We keep our tuition extremely low by having a laser-like focus on the actual learning experience. What is really surprising is that focusing on the academic experience actually produces an exceptional education for an affordable price. By not worrying about the amenities, we can produce an education that rivals that of an elite college yet with a very modest price tag. We could add an extensive list of amenities, but that would require a brutal tuition hike, and it would produce a campus climate antithetical to what we are trying to cultivate.
I argued in the previous chapter that much of the bureaucratic bloat that federal money requires has caused colleges to get off mission. This is because it is easy to miss what makes an education excellent: an excellent faculty. It bears repeating—an excellent faculty makes the college. Bureaucratic bloat takes the focus off of the faculty and makes it about the facilities, the educational accouterments, and the surrounding programs. But how much money has been wasted on wave after wave of audio-visual aids that distract from the actual education rather than supplement it? Instead, colleges should work to hire an excellent faculty.
Our graduates, who have come out of this quirky little college in northern Idaho and have paid pennies comparatively for their undergraduate tuition, have gone on to grad school at Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Notre Dame, etc.
These hallmarks have been the focus at New Saint Andrews College: small classes with a truly robust and rigorous curriculum delivered by men and women who know their stuff and push their students hard. The results are stunning. Our graduates, who have come out of this quirky little college in northern Idaho and have paid pennies comparatively for their undergraduate tuition, have gone on to grad school at Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Notre Dame, etc. What is truly remarkable to see is how the actual moment of education, when a student has the great “Ah Hah” moment that excellent teachers live to create, is so achievable. You need an excellent teacher, a willing student, and a suitable text (a building with heat is nice but not necessary). So much of what we fund for the sake of “learning” interferes with, rather than enhances, this moment.
Ideally, NSA will build an endowment in the upcoming years like Grove City and Hillsdale. I would like to pay the faculty more, I would like to have a few more rooms, and I’d like to be able to offer scholarships to more students who would be good fits for the school but can’t currently afford what is already a really low tuition. But, even without an endowment, we have made such a strong beginning. Once, I had a visit from the president of another Christian liberal arts college. At the end of his visit he said to me, “Your academic program is far superior to 99% of the other Christian liberal arts colleges. Their campuses are better than yours, but your academic program would blow them away.” I know he is right. And I know that foregoing the federal money has actually helped us to focus on building this excellence rather than hindering it.
“Your academic program is far superior to 99% of the other Christian liberal arts colleges. Their campuses are better than yours, but your academic program would blow them away.”
But we aren’t the only ones. Patrick Henry College in Virginia, Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, and New College Franklin in Tennessee are all colleges that started in the last two decades and have been purposefully avoiding federal money to maintain the integrity of their institutions. This list shows that the solution I am describing is not only possible, but it is real, and it is doable in a variety of locations and circumstances.
The truth is we need more colleges and universities functioning without the lure of federal money. But in order for them to do that, they need to see a bright example that it is possible. At NSA we are leading the way in doing education the right way. If you would like to join us in being an example to colleges and universities across the country, we would appreciate your support. Higher education can and should be done without the entanglements of government strings. A gift today to our endowment fund will enable us to continue to show others that a truly rigorous education without government money really is possible.