With the endowment at Wesleyan having declined by 3.9 percent, there are already more cures being offered for Wesleyan’s financial problems than would be present at a snake oil salesmen’s convention. These cures are too numerous to detail, and vary drastically in quality. They also vary as to what the primary cause of Wesleyan’s financial troubles is — for some, it is the fault of the national economy, whereas for others it is a decrease in financially successful alumni, and for still others it is Wesleyan’s declining prestige. These three causes are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, this author believes that they are inextricably linked.
Alison Cies’s article this Friday (“Endowment shrink to 3.9 percent,” Oct. 3, 2008, volume CXLIV, Number 10) paints a bleak picture of Wesleyan’s financial status, but when you place that picture in the context of Wesleyan’s standing relative to peer institutions, it becomes catastrophic. As of now, Wesleyan’s endowment is slightly more than one third as large as Amherst’s, one half as large as Swarthmore’s and roughly two thirds as large as Vassar’s. Moreover, the alumni giving rate at Wesleyan is much smaller than the alumni giving rate at Amherst. This problem is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Wesleyan’s alumni population is significantly larger than Amherst’s (since Wesleyan is larger than Amherst in general), but it still does not explain the relative disenchantment which our alumni feel towards their alma mater. Our drop in ranking worsens the situation, considering that money spent per student often correlates with high rankings, but at this rate, our endowment cannot sustain large amounts of spending per student.
So, to quote one of the most famously dangerous economic illiterates in history, “What is to be done?” As mentioned already, Wesleyan’s problems seem to spring from alumni disenchantment, drops in prestige and national economic crisis. Nothing can be done about the national economic crisis, so one must focus on the first two causes, which are quite related. A drop in Wesleyan’s prestige will necessarily make alumni less happy, and less happy alumni means less money, and less money means it will be harder to regain our prestige, and so on as we spiral down into the safety school abyss.
It is the opinion of this author that if we fix the problem of prestige, the problem of the endowment will follow, because the factors which contribute to good prestige also contribute to a larger endowment. So how does Wesleyan fix its prestige? Generally speaking, prestige has been correlated with three different factors in a college—age, quality of education and alumni success/fame. Age is relevant insofar as it gives the college more time to accumulate successful alumni and their donations. Good quality of education is beneficial in numerous ways, but only one is relevant to the endowment—it encourages alumni to continue giving because they believe their money is going to a good cause. Finally, massive alumni success will contribute to the endowment because it attracts ambitious prospective students to apply, and then to give back to Wesleyan once they have graduated and gone on to actually be successful.
Wesleyan has no age problem, and even if it did, that couldn’t be remedied by policy unless Wesleyan was able to miraculously alter Time And Relative Dimension In Space. Quality of education is dubiously perceived, however, and alumni success seems to be on the wane. If the cause of these latter two failings can be perceived and solved, then Wesleyan should be at least marginally better off.
First, Wesleyan suffers a problem convincing its alumni that it still provides quality education. Having worked in the Red & Black Society, I have witnessed this firsthand, especially among the older and more conservative alumni. One alumnus informed me that I should get out of Wesleyan because it would “fill [my] skull with mush.” This sort of response was widespread enough that it seems Wesleyan’s radical reputation has hurt its ability to sell itself as a purveyor of an apolitical, high quality educational experience.
This doesn’t mean Wesleyan should dump its reputation as a safe space for eccentricity; it just means that Wesleyan should sell itself as a school for students who are not only eccentric, but also driven, smart and capable. Getting an Ivy League-quality education doesn’t necessarily imply indoctrination with Ivy League culture, though Wesleyan’s obsessive phobia of Ivy League culture is hardly beneficial either. The counter-dependent and defensive anti-Ivy sentiment which this campus sometimes displays could easily alienate many smart, interesting, capable prospective students who may want to acquire deep pockets before going out and trying to save the world.
This leads to the second issue with Wesleyan’s prestige—it seems to have trouble producing famously successful alumni. This obviously impacts alumni giving rates, but more importantly, it endangers Wesleyan’s ability to continue producing successful alumni (outside of the film world, that is). For an ambitious, business-minded prospective student, there may be a worry that going to Wesleyan and not majoring in Film or CSS will adversely affect your ability to get a high paying job in a way that a Brown, Yale or Amherst education will not. Moreover, if this perception exists, those students who do graduate from Wesleyan and go on to such a career will be less likely to attribute their success to the degree, if that degree shows no signs of helping a significant number of others. This in turn leads to alumni apathy, low giving rates and a lower endowment.
So to fix the endowment, we must do many things; but first and foremost, we must make alumni proud to have attended this school again and must also make prospective students eager to attend it in the first place. We must prove that we can provide not only an elite education, but the payoff associated with that education. We must show that Wesleyan offers sustenance for both the ambitious and the intellectually curious without sacrificing one for the other. Not just any liberal arts college could do this, but the Independent Ivy can, and it must.