Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Perhaps NOT Diversity University, No Longer: Wesleyan Responds!

Although I have other posts for my series on teacher, I mean, teaching quality in the queue, I'm going to take a little break (okay, it's been a long break, but my kids have been sick and there's been lots of "snow" days) to post the letter I got from my alma mater, Wesleyan University, in response to this post and open letter I wrote to them back in December. 

I must say I was heartened and stand very much corrected both by the comments made by a fellow alum on the original post and by the information in this letter. That being said, the last paragraph really disappointed and discouraged me and lends credence to my criticisms in the original post of how Wesleyan brands itself (to me, gratingly so) in self-righteousness. I'm sure that Ms. Vasiliou was just telling me what she thought I wanted to hear. But, alas:

a) it is not Wesleyan that gave me my zeal for social justice and public education--it is my family and upbringing--and I found it rather presumptuous to assume otherwise.

b) I am more troubled by than proud of the high number of Wesleyan graduates who go into Teach For America. I myself applied to be a corps member in the organization when I was a senior (and was rightly rejected), but recently I have come to see TFA as highly problematic on a number of levels--as a mechanism to improve teacher quality, ideologically, economically, ethically. I explore all of this in a commentary  I recently finished and am currently shopping around to larger publications (any takers?!?!), which is to say you'll see it on my blog in a few weeks when it, too, is roundly rejected :)

Here's the letter:

Dear Rachel,

As the current director of the Wesleyan Fund, I’d like to provide some information about two concerns you discuss in your 12/1 blog entry: Does Wesleyan help or hinder educational diversity and access? and Why does the University ask alumni for financial support?

Wesleyan’s commitment to racial and economic diversity and access is alive and well, backed up by our longstanding policy of need-blind admission with full aid support. In the current first-year class, for instance, 34% of admittees are students of color and 14% are the first generation in their family to attend a four-year college.  Of all students now on campus, 18% are federal Pell Grant recipients.  Not only do we admit applicants without regard to their financial means, we actively recruit low-income students through their schools and in collaboration with programs such as Prep for Prep, A Better Chance, and most recently QuestBridge.  (Adjusted for size of school, Wesleyan has enrolled more Prep for Prep graduates than any other college.) You may remember that Wesleyan offers scholarships to talented graduates of the local community college, and we also have dedicated scholarships for veterans in need of aid.  The Admission Office doesn’t admit students unprepared to be successful with the level of work required here; instead, they suggest to low-income students with apparent high potential that they take advantage of post-high-school “bridge” programs with financial aid that several secondary schools offer, after which they can reapply to Wesleyan. 

Acting on these principles entails high costs. About 18% of our total annual operating budget goes for financial aid. This year we will spend $41.3 million on scholarships. Wesleyan does not give merit scholarships; all of our scholarship funds are reserved for students from families requiring assistance to afford college. The university meets the full demonstrated need of every enrolled student, through a combination of grants, loans, and work-study jobs.  Under policy announced by President Roth three years ago, grants were increased, so that no student now graduates with more than $19,000 in loan debt.  Loans have been totally eliminated for Wesleyan students with family incomes of $40,000 or less (the Pell grant criterion): these students receive scholarship grants covering their full need.  Even students paying “full” tuition and board are partially subsidized by the University, because the fees charged cover approximately 71% of yearly educational cost. 

Where does alumni support come in? We make up the costs not covered by tuition mainly through contributions to the annual fund and to the endowment.  Far from being wealthy, Wesleyan operates with an endowment one-third to one-fifth the size of those at other leading colleges. Surprisingly to some alumni, third-party surveys have shown that Wesleyan graduates essentially have the same spread in income as our peer colleges.  But, while our higher-income alumni give at comparable rates to alumni from those other schools, Wesleyan is behind when it comes to mid- and lower-level income alumni giving.  Our top priority is financial aid, and we have to mobilize more of the community to make sure we have the funds that need-blind admission requires. 

It’s great that you are idealistic about education. Many other Wes alumni share your dedication.  In recent years Teach for America has been the number 1 first employer of our new graduates.  We’re proud of educators like Kira Orange Jones ’00, the regional director of Teach for America in New Orleans, and Jessica Posner ’09 and Kennedy Odede ’12, who built and are running the first free school for girls in the largest slum in Africa-- Kibera, Kenya.  Alumni like these tell us that their Wesleyan education played a large role in inspiring them and preparing them with the skills to make significant changes in society.  I hope that observation rings true with you, too.

Pam Vasiliou

UPDATE I: I forgot to mention that while I was a student at Wesleyan, they phased out their teacher certification/education program. I remember my fabulous RA was one of its last participants. Anyone have more information on this? I would much rather see Wesleyan re-institute some kind of teacher training or education program or just do something on a bigger scale to get their students to think about being teachers rather than outsource that to TFA. But, then again, perhaps they do. I've been uninformed before. . .

UPDATE II: A reader just pointed out that Wesleyan University professor Claire Potter, a.k.a. the Tenured Radical, did a terrific post on TFA on her blog. I read her blog, but somehow missed this post. Hmmm, she makes many of the same points I did in my piece. Only better. Maybe I can't get mine published because it's already been said.


  1. Thank you for inviting me to come read your blog, Rachel. I'm really enjoying it and have read through your entire first page, as well as the two articles you linked over at Joanne's site.

    You know... I'm not a huge fan of TFA either. I think the principle of trying to hire teachers from elite schools is an excellent one, but the way the program has been implemented, well... Professor Potter's right on the money, I think. What's needed isn't the paid-for safari expeditions into the educational wilderness that TFA offers. What's needed is serious effort at getting the best graduates from the best LOCAL universities to teach in the area as a permanent vocation.

    I need to think more about your Wesleyan-specific concerns before commenting, and when I do I'll do so on your original open letter post. But thank you again for guiding me here. I'm adding you to my permanent reading list.

  2. Thanks so much for reading & commenting. I'm thrilled! If you don't do so already, I highly recommend subscribing to Prof. Potter's blog.

    What a coincidence that you were class of '96. I wonder if we know any of the same people or if we ever met.

    If you have written other things or have had your education work highlighted anywhere besides on your blog, I'd love the links.

  3. I actually am pretty certain I recognize you, though we may not have ever said more than 4 or 5 words to each other.

    Drop me an email and we'll chat:


    (Alumni email addresses die hard.)

    As for *my* blog, well, Highered Intelligence has been decommissioned for quite some time. I took it down when I was applying for graduate school and haven't ever really gotten back to it. So you'll have to content yourself with my stuff from JJ's site.


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