Not one to leave a hot policy debate without his input, Professor of Economics and CSS Tutor Gilbert Skillman recently outlined his expert opinion on the need-blind debate in an email to the need-blind activism email group. Even non-economics majors and students uninterested in the debate say it’s worth the read (excerpts of Skillman’s comments are in the interview below). Professor Skillman is known for his tough yet worthwhile classes and is one of the most well-known—and busy—professors at Wesleyan. Skillman took a break from his busy schedule to discuss musicians’ biographies, the impracticality of need-blind admissions, and popular confusion with regard to the national economy.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf right now? What non-work books have you been reading lately?
Gilbert Skillman: I like to browse used book stores—I think the Niantic Book Barn is the best one in the state—and snag books whose titles or contents catch my eye. They end up on my nightstand or near the chair, so that I can pick up whatever fits my mood. I’ve had a few categories of books in the rotation lately.
First, I love the era of American humor from the first half of the 20th century, starting with Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley sketches and George Ade’s slang fables… I just finished James Thurber’s “The Years with Ross,” a memoir of the founder and first editor of the New Yorker, and I am somewhere in the middle of “Conversations with S.J. Perelman.” And although Lord Buckley was primarily a standup comic—the first jazz-rapper comedian, if you can imagine that—I like reading his “Hiparama of the Classics,” written transcriptions of some of his best monologues.
Secondly, I’m intrigued by biographies of exceptional—in one way or another—musicians, because they generally think differently from the rest of us. I just read Phil Lesh’s “Searching for the Sound,” about his time with the Grateful Dead, and I’m somewhere in the middle of Robin Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk… I just started Paul Robeson’s “Here I Stand.” Robeson’s life story is astounding, and a cautionary tale about the de facto limits of American “freedoms.”
…I’m slowly plowing through Harold Bloom’s “Genius,” which offers critical meditations on his one hundred favorite creative literary minds. I’m finding it mostly annoying, almost certainly because I don’t have his depth of understanding of the works he discusses. But he has led me to a greater appreciation of some of his faves.
A: You’re an economics professor; are you reading any econ-related books?
GS: Oh yes, partly in preparation for this semester’s classes and for new research projects—I’m on sabbatical in the spring. I started reading Jonathan Haidt’s new book “The Righteous Mind” just out of interest in his topic, but I ended up including it in the syllabus for my CSS senior seminar on political economy. I don’t think Haidt proves his main claim about the relative moral sensitivity of conservatives, but he makes interesting and relevant arguments along the way. For the same course, I’m reading or re-reading other books on political economy, including “Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age” by Larry Bartels. For my small-group tutorial on the economics of Karl Marx’s “Capital,” but also in preparation for a new research project, I’m combing through Marx’s rough drafts of “Capital” preceding the version published as Volume I in 1867.
A: I recently read your email on the need-blind issue. Could you talk about your opinions on the shift to “need-aware?” What drove you to write on the subject?
GS: I strongly support the philosophy underlying need-blind admissions, and for most of my 20-plus years at Wesleyan, I’ve taken as granted that need-blind is a defining feature of what we do here. But a few years ago, through my work on the Budget Priorities Committee and the Board of Trustees’ Finance Committee, I began to suspect that there were systematic problems in the implementation of need-blind, caused by our financial situation relative to that of the schools we want to compete with, and that it was therefore irresponsible not to look more closely at the economics of need-blind and its consequences. In brief, I think the move to need-aware, although painful—I still cringe a bit, thinking about it—was the financially responsible thing to do, all relevant factors considered.
A: What aspects of Wesleyan do you think have suffered from need-blind admissions?
GS: Put very simply, the problems with the school’s need-blind admissions and financial aid policy arise from Wesleyan’s limited financial resources—as measured by endowment per student—relative to the institutions we compete with for students and faculty. On one hand, [the] need-blind policy turns financial aid into the tail that wags the University’s budgetary dog, since it commits the institution to meeting admitted students’ full financial need, whatever that might turn out to be. That has proven to be a very expensive proposition, and one whose demands have increased disproportionately and consistently in excess of planned rates of growth. Over the past 15 years, the financial aid budget has quadrupled in magnitude, and more tellingly, has almost doubled as a percentage of the University’s operating budget. On the other hand, the University ranks 22nd among 23 top liberal arts institutions in endowment per student, with the median for this group being about 50 percent higher than Wesleyan’s. This has meant that spending out of the endowment and annual gifts has not come near keeping pace with the growth in financial aid. Consequently, the University must make other adjustments and cuts, nearly all of which hurt some other aspect of the University’s mission—for example, increasing class sizes or reducing administrative or financial support for faculty teaching and research efforts.
But to me, the consideration that really put the hammer to the nail is the very real possibility that trying to maintain need-blind with our comparatively limited financial resources has undercut some of the key goals motivating the policy. That is, there are some serious indications that the un-generosity of our financial aid packages relative to those of our peers has driven away students from families with a middle range of income, leading to a dramatic increase over the last 11 years or so in the proportion of students coming from families from the highest income levels. Certainly this is not what the policy was meant to achieve.
A: When do you feel that Wesleyan will be able to shift back to need-blind?
GS: I would rather broaden the question to this: how might we go about promoting the goals that need-blind admissions and financial aid policy is intended to support? As President Roth pointed out in a recent blog [post], it is pointless or worse to focus on the letter rather than the purposes of need-blind. A school could be nominally need-blind and yet offer most or all of its aid in the form of loans, saddling its students with huge debt burdens after graduation. The latter has in fact been one of the unintended consequences of Wesleyan’s commitment to need-blind, which has compromised the goals of the policy.
Putting the question more broadly would, I hope, prompt people interested in supporting the goals of need-blind to start thinking outside of the box. Another simple way of putting Wesleyan’s problem with need-blind is that we’re pursuing its underlying goals primarily through reliance on a resource in which we’re comparatively weak—endowment per student. We should be thinking of creative ways to make existing financial aid resources stretch further in promoting socioeconomic diversity among our students and ensuring that those from disadvantaged backgrounds get viable chances for a high-level liberal arts education.
One approach I’ve suggested is making greater outreach to schools in low-income areas via our alums who’ve gone into teaching, with an eye toward identifying students with high aptitude who might nevertheless need some supplementary schoolwork in order to be ready for Wesleyan’s curriculum. We might then offer a quid pro quo in which, if a student in this situation is accepted to Wesleyan, we pay for that student’s supplementary work at a community college or like institution, which would presumably be less costly than a year at Wesleyan. A second possibility, although this may seem counter-intuitive, is modifying or eliminating our no-loans policy for students from lower-income families. The reasoning here is that students’ ability to pay for educational loans depends on their expected incomes after graduation, not necessarily their families’ incomes. And students who graduate from places like Wesleyan can expect higher levels of lifetime income than those who don’t have this opportunity.
If we restrict ourselves solely to the solution of returning to need-blind admissions, then I think we won’t be in a position to support the policy in a sustainable manner until we add at least 100 million dollars to the endowment beyond what the administration hopes to raise with the current capital campaign. Either that, or we must find a way of generating an additional roughly six million or so in annual gifts. And these measures would simply be to fund the levels of financial aid required to maintain need-blind at next year’s projected cost levels.
A: What spurred your interest in economics?
GS: An accident of association, primarily. My debate coach in high school also taught the economics course. I took it and the rest was (economic) history.
A: Changing the subject a bit, this is an election year, what are your opinions on economics in politics right now? Do you think that the economy is the biggest issue that should be talked about during this election?
GS: I think that the political discussion of economic matters is even more superficial and misdirected than usual this year, probably as a reflection of the high level of antagonistic partisanship at the federal level. Perhaps the key economic insight that is not being addressed concerns the distinction between our immediate economic situation, brought on by the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession, and the government’s long-run fiscal situation, caused by the country’s massive over-commitment to military spending, the growing costs of Medicare, and in particular, the series of pointless and fiscally irresponsible cuts in the corporate income tax, federal income tax rates (especially for the affluent), and the estate tax.
Given the scary-looking projections for federal debt levels, people have a hard time understanding that we need to increase government spending in the short term to speed our recovery from this slump, so that we don’t repeat the experience of the 1930s. To me, there is an obvious win-win possibility that no major political figure is talking about: given the relatively decrepit state of the country’s communication, utilities and transportation infrastructure (the American Society of Engineers grades it D+), a major program of government spending in these areas could both improve our short-run economic prospects and increase the prospects for sustainable long-run growth at the same time.