Martin Gladwell on Higher Ed

I was stunned recently by three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, ReVisionist History, pertaining to higher education. He rips into rich colleges for leaving the poor behind. That’s gotta sting…..

Gladwell’s episodes present only his point of view, a potential downside to any podcast,  but their strength is in their novelty. Few public voices are willing to say “out loud” that the nuclear arms race in “amenities” within higher education may be immoral – genuinely, truly against the morals of a system that ought to care about the people who live in it. And while no systemic change comes from a dreamer yelling and shaking his fist at the sky — which is kind of how Gladwell comes across — systemic change will not happen unless someone first points out the problems. And it helps if the person doing the pointing is hella famous with a really big megaphone.

Episode Notes
1. “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” — Stunning storytelling gives this episode outsized impact. It’s a carrier for the message that there are 36K “poor smart kids” in the US *each year* who do not make it into college but  have the academic chops to do it. Aside from a moral argument about capitalism eating poor people because it can do that, this episode sets up an economic argument for helping poor kids reach their full potential — as a nation, we need all the capable, smart people we can get.

This episode fights against the myth that poor people have the same level of access that non-poor people do. Truth is,  as exemplified by  Carlos, they don’t. They’re held back by the ancillary effects of poverty, of dysfunctional families, of not having the social capital to know how to navigate the system. Lots of evidence out there that poor kids apply to far fewer colleges, rarely try attending good ones even if they get in, do not understand the financial aid process, and drop out of good colleges in higher numbers because of family disruptions or even just feeling massively out of place living with a bunch of rich kids. Campuses rarely address the cross-cultural disorientation of someone poor or working-class on a campus with kids who aren’t.

2. “Food Fight” — I would disagree with Gladwell’s assertion that private colleges are more at fault than public ones for leaving poor kids in the lurch. That said, the episode uses the quality of cafeteria food as a proxy for an institution’s financial priorities, acknowledging the dangerous waters of a consumer-driven higher education market. Give the people what they want, or they won’t come. Fine, but what if the “people” want you to spend money immorally? Should we consider investing in filet mignon instead of scholarships for poor kids an immoral choice? This is the question Gladwell presents as he compares Vassar to Bowdoin college. Vassar has chosen to buck the designer-college / rich kid college trend, so the cafeteria food is pretty bad. But a lot more poor kids are going to Vassar now…. and the leadership thinks it’s worth endangering their brand to do so.

I have a two gripes with this episode.

First, Gladwell is right to focus on private colleges, but that’s too easy of a target. I don’t think public and private institutions should be judged by such different standards here –not since states have slashed public funding for colleges so drastically that many public institutions rely on tuition revenue. Not when South Carolina (and Georgia and several other states) use lottery money or other public revenue as direct funding to students, who then select in-state colleges. Yes, private colleges in SC receive huge portions of their budget from SC Life and Hope scholarship money carried to them by the students they pursue, but state schools like Clemson also receive a vast sum of money from the same scholarship funds. While Clemson also gets millions more directly from the state — and I agree that our state colleges SHOULD be funded with a view toward improving education for SC residents — its focus isn’t on fixing SC education. Clemson wants to be rich and famous. Our flagship state institutions are fighting for prestige just like the top-tier private colleges.

Just like Bowdoin. It looks different when you’re talking about cafeteria food, but it’s the same disease.

In SC, the colleges on the front lines of education to the underserved are the state campuses of USC in rural areas, the HBCU schools, and the tech schools. Everyone else is going after the smart kid who has money to pay tuition. And the 2-yr colleges, as Gladwell pointed out, are horrifically underfunded.

[I recall Obama trying to bring light to the plight of community college funding early in his presidency and getting nowhere. Maybe it isn’t a federal problem to fix. But SC can’t even muster the political will to fix its damn roads, so there’s not much hope in my mind that the SC legislature will raise revenue to support Tri-Couty Tech either.]

Second – Who’s responsible for the amenities arms race in higher ed? Obviously it’s a joint problem. Parents let their kids buy a $25K/yr education and borrow the money for it. Colleges panic and are afraid to do what Vassar is doing – see financial aid as a moral issue, and force the colleges in their region to talk about it.

I’d like to think that as a society we would collectively agree to address this issue, but realistically, people with power (=money) rarely give up that power willingly, and especially when that would mean denying their own offspring a leg up in the world. Because that’s what money buys in higher education – if you have the money to get into the Ivys or top tier colleges, you’re going to take advantage of that because of the range of opportunities it will open for you later: networking, job promotions, rubbing shoulders with top academics and famous names (like Gladwell). Even in SC, going to Clemson (which will probably cost you at least $5K out of pocket these days unless you’re a Palmetto Scholar, and the net price cost is actually $16K) means you join a huge network of alumni who essentially run the Upstate, especially in business, engineering, and architecture.

So I don’t think we people are going to “fix” this ourselves. It will continue, and get worse, apart from external intervention. I don’t know what that intervention should be, but we can’t say Gladwell didn’t try to point out the harm this thinking does to many students who never get into college, and the loss that represents to their communities.

3. “My Little Hundred Million” – the episode in which Gladwell is flabbergasted by the president of Stanford. It’s pretty hilarious, actually. I appreciate that Gladwell isn’t trying to be a neutral observer here. His central theme is that decisions about money and funding are, at their core, moral choices when we’re in the realm of education.  So what does Stanford need with another hundred million?! Why are they still pursuing funding??

Gladwell demonstrates that a decent investment of philanthropy from someone of means into a middle-sized college in an “average” area can spark landmark improvements, far beyond the raw value of that money by itself. But at a Stanford or Princeton, it just gets thrown into the enormous endowment pile.

Gladwell’s Stanford point. A college with an endowment in the BILLIONS is not hampered IN ANY WAY from doing any research it wants to do.  But the effects of even a modest $10m gift to a medium or small school is huuuuuuge — Stanford is already helping pretty much every one it’s going to help. Glassboro State in New Jersey, the focus of this episode, is now helping hundreds more people in its region get credentials for engineering fields.

Some have criticized Gladwell’s argument here in noting that well-meaning but ill-informed donors do a lot of damage by giving big piles of money to colleges and tying their hands, forcing those colleges to start programs the region doesn’t need, or linking the money to a narrow cause which isn’t future-proof. But the donor at the heart of this episode funded a college in a highly populated area to start programs that are sorely needed both in NY/NJ/PA and across the nation. Win-win.

Imagine a rich Saudi prince gave Lander University, a small school in a small SC city away from the corridors of power, twenty million dollars to open an Islamic Studies department. Some might see this as donor meddling, the poster child for philanthropy gone wrong. But let’s consider that for a moment. Assuming the college officials weren’t stupid and set up expectations that the Saudi donor doesn’t control anything about the programming, what benefits might come of it?

Well, SC knows almost nothing about foreign cultures. It’s one of the biggest problems of the state. The Upstate does ok in the urban areas because of Michelin, BMW, etc, but that has zero effect on the rural areas. So there’s the possibility of greater human diversity within Greenwood Co, a perk in itself.

Are there jobs out there for people with knowledge of the Middle East? Um, yes! That would be a brilliant move for a small SC college — to anchor a program in a growing field. The State Department, the military branches, the CIA, and global business are all going to be looking for people with a rich understanding of Islamic culture. It’s not going to change anytime in the next century.

Now, if someone simply gave Lander money to start a program, it would probably be better for the state as a whole if Lander also got to pick the field, and select something more immediately beneficial to SC. Health care is obvious; advanced innovative manufacturing would be good too.

But Gladwell’s point is this: $100mil invested in SC’s education system would actually change lives. At Stanford or Princeton, it doesn’t. No more than Stanford is already doing cutting-edge work.


In short, I thought this was a brilliant trio of podcasts. Not perfect by any means. But brilliant.

If i were to poke at Gladwell …

– He glosses over the fact that every poor kid who gets into school is going to need a whole village of support behind him, or it’s a pyrrhic victory.
– He gets preachy. I generally agree with him, but moral outrage isn’t going to lay the groundwork for solving the problem by itself. (However, we’ve got to start somewhere, and too few people are even bothered by the moral travesty of feeding rich kids lobster while many other kids will never get close to the educational or social advantages of college.)
– He isn’t addressing what I think is the actual problem: the assumption that every intelligent person needs to go to college, that there are no viable alternatives for intelligent kids to gain personal enrichment and broadening experiences except by going to college. We don’t fund gap year programs; we don’t send poorer kids to Europe or even to other parts of the state. Generational poverty eats lives and traps them, stripping people of even the ability to imagine a better life for themselves.

All that aside, I hope Gladwell continues to prick our consciences with ReVisionist History. Go check out the podcast series.

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