MISSION: PROFITABLE—Repackaging Higher Education

ANDREW DELBANCO has no knowledge of what happened at the College of Santa Fe.

Delbanco, the Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, is the author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, published in March by Princeton University Press, in which he explains the forces that changed the way American society views higher education.

It’s a complicated argument, one not easily distilled, but the basic idea is that a consumerist ethos blossomed in the 1970s and ‘80s, turning students into customers and redirecting significant resources to campus marketing departments. An expanding knowledge base in the sciences, combined with harsh publish-or-perish mandates for university faculty, has limited professors’ ability to teach general, introductory-level courses, and traditional colleges and universities, unwilling or unable to meet the needs of a changing student base, left a vacuum of opportunity now filled by for-profit colleges. Furthermore, the public feels confusion and consternation over what college is for: Is it a stage of life in which young people explore the mysteries of human nature and discovery, or is it a career-oriented training ground that had better be worth the money?

Save for the expanding knowledge base in the sciences, all of the changes raised by Delbanco contributed to the demise of the College of Santa Fe in 2009, when the city of Santa Fe purchased the campus and leased it to Laureate Education Inc., a Baltimore-based for-profit education company.

CSF was founded as El Colegio de San Miguel (St. Michael's College) in 1859 by the De La Salle Christian Brothers. Besides the Loretto Academy for girls, it was the sole source of formal education in Northern New Mexico for decades. The college program was dropped for financial reasons after World War I; after World War II, some brothers left St. Michael’s High School and re-established the college program on the grounds of the abandoned Bruns Army Hospital. (The name was changed from St. Michael’s College to the College of Santa Fe in 1966, the same year the college became co-educational.) That CSF was founded in the Lasallian tradition isn’t a side note in the institution’s history but is the reason for its existence. The Lasallian tradition of a broad-based liberal education is supposed to empower people, especially the disadvantaged, which is why tuition remained roughly half that of comparable institutions throughout the 1990s.

Much can be said about the school’s declining enrollment outside of the arts in the 1980s: social-work students flocked to New Mexico Highlands University and nursing students left for Santa Fe Community College when it opened, causing the CSF nursing program to fold. Some have said that the liberal-arts college should have become an “art school” back then, though this argument disregards the founding mission as though it was nothing but a failed business plan. There is also the larger story of the aging Christian Brothers, the higher salaries required for lay faculty, and poor financial decisions made over the years by numerous people. But assigning blame is easy in hindsight. As with Delbanco’s meditation on what has gone wrong nationwide, there are no easy answers here.

Though Delbanco wouldn’t offer specific opinions on CSF’s closure, his generalities were accurate. “The fundamental difference between a nonprofit college and a for-profit college is that in a for-profit college, you set your price higher than your cost,” he said in a conversation with Pasatiempo. “In the nonprofit world you charge less than what it costs you. I am sure that the College of Santa Fe was not charging as much as it was costing them to educate their students. They didn’t have enough students who wanted to come there, and they didn’t have enough philanthropic support. There are many American colleges that are in a tough spot in that regard. It’s important for people to understand that this is the case with nonprofit colleges, because there’s so much talk about how expensive colleges are, how wasteful they are, and so on. There’s some truth to that. There are some cost-saving measures that could be introduced, but by and large, American colleges are giving away more than they’re taking in.”

Early in his book, Delbanco distinguishes between a college and a university. “We use the terms ‘college’ and ‘university’ interchangeably ... as if a college and a university are the same thing. They are not,” he writes. Though colleges can exist within universities, they have different purposes. “The former is about transmitting knowledge of and from the past to undergraduate students so they may draw upon it as a living resource in the future. The latter is mainly an array of research activities conducted by faculty and graduate students with the aim of creating new knowledge in order to supersede the past.” To be considered a university in the United States, an institution must have professional programs, such as medical and law schools. Despite CSF’s lack of such programs and its focus on the arts, Laureate changed the school’s name to Santa Fe University of Art and Design in 2010. The change was explained publicly as a marketing decision made so its international student base would recognize SFUAD as an institution of higher learning, because high schools are called colleges in some countries.

Numerous American colleges have become universities, including Westfield State College in Massachusetts, Loyola College in Maryland, and the College of St. Catherine in Minnesota. Sometimes this change reflects a growth in the institution’s graduate programs, but just as often it’s a marketing decision. “There's a sense that universities are superior institutions to colleges in the minds of many people. I think that's a big mistake,” Delbanco said.

Many decisions that colleges and universities make, he said, are driven by the desire to rise in the annual “best colleges” rankings published by U.S. News & World Report, which can be achieved by appearing to be more selective in admissions and paying higher faculty salaries, among other criteria. But the importance of the U.S. News rankings has been overinflated in the minds of the American public. “Most of the ways to rise in the rankings have very little to do with the quality of the experience in the classroom,” Delbanco said. “The rankings of the top 10 or 15 schools conform very closely to which ones have the most money. It’s nice to have a lot of money, but a family that has a lot of money could be totally dysfunctional, and you wouldn’t want to be a child in that family. You might be better off in a family that has less financial flexibility but is more committed to making it a good experience.”

In the early 1990s, U.S. News began ranking CSF among the top up-and-coming colleges in the American West. The college popped in and out of the rankings after that until it closed. In 2011, Santa Fe University of Art and Design did not submit enough data to qualify for a ranking. Is it possible that, in some sense, the College of Santa Fe outlasted its mission in Santa Fe—not the Lasallian mission, but the mission to educate the local population—long after other institutions had cropped up to serve the same purpose? Is it even possible for a college to outlast its mission?

“I cannot comment on what happened at the College of Santa Fe,” Delbanco said. “But as a general proposition, no college can ever outlast the fundamental mission to pass on the knowledge that the human race has accumulated over several millennia to the next generation so that they can put it to work and try to make the world a better place. But, more narrowly, every college depends on the support of its community, and some colleges have larger communities than others. The big research universities have international constituencies, as students from all over the world want to go there. Other colleges are more local or regional, and they have to depend on the support of the local community, which comes in different forms. If that support isn’t there, then the college is going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Jennifer Levin graduated from the College of Santa Fe in 1996. She worked as the public information officer and editorial director of the CSF marketing department from 1998 to 2009. To speak to Jennifer at more length about what happened at the College of Santa Fe, please contact her.


This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 05/04/2012