John M. McCardell Jr., vice chancellor and president of The University of the South, more familiarly known as Sewanee, is extraordinarily honest. He has strong views about the cost of higher education, about how colleges and universities are rated, about the rules and traditions that govern campus life, and about the relationship between universities and the communities in which they are located. His candor is refreshing and instructive.
McCardell argues passionately about the value of higher education, but he admits that the cost of obtaining one is often beyond the reach of many students and their families. He’s not one to stop with that admission. He’s done something to slow rising costs at his school.
Working with Sewanee’s Board of Regents, the school’s governing body, McCardell cut tuition by 10 percent and guaranteed enrolling freshmen that their tuition would remain stable for four years. That might not seem like much when tuition is well above of $40,000, but doing so sent a powerful and well-received message — change can be good — to students, parents and to others involved in higher education.
Campus visits and admission applications rose after the cuts. Enrollment, which had been in slow decline, is on the rise, too. The incoming freshman class will number 450. It was 401 before the Board of Regents acted.
McCardell told a meeting of the Times Free Press editorial board that he is pleased with the tuition reduction and stabilization programs, but that he wants to make Sewanee still more affordable, especially for students with major financial needs. He wants to do so by changing the way scholarships are awarded. Rather than basing them solely on merit, he’d like to be able to guarantee that all demonstrable financial needs would be met for any student admitted to the university. That goal has yet to be met.
McCardell is moving his school in that direction. It is an effort that should be applauded when the price of higher education causes many students to either leave school early or to be laden with enormous student loan debt upon graduation.
McCardell cautions those considering higher education to remember that elite schools aren’t the only way to gain an education. He candidly says that for many students an associate degree can provide a pathway to a better life, and that public institutions at all levels can provide an exceptional education. Indeed, he admits, Sewanee, for a time, was losing more students to the University of Georgia and its honors program than to other elite institutions.
That trend, in McCardell’s view, does not mean the demise of elite liberal arts institutions. Sewanee still has a prominent place in higher education, he says. The sort of education it provides — direct interaction with teachers and more flexibility in scheduling and courses — is valuable in preparing students for a lifetime of work rather than a specific occupation. The value of such an education, hasn’t changed, he adds, though outside influences, many driven by economics, have done so.
Those influences prompt, change, too. While many schools once were content to remain aloof, that philosophy is changing. Sewanee is in the forefront of that change. Part of that is because of its size; the school has a 13,000-acre domain that makes it the size of a small city. McCardell jokingly says he is more a mayor than a president. If so, it is a role he takes seriously.
Sewanee is working through various partnerships and programs with nearby governments — Marion, Grundy and Franklin counties and several municipalities — to build stronger ties with the campus community. Doing so, McCardell says, helps insure the stability and vitality of both.
Make no mistake, McCardell still champions his university, long one of the region’s most prestigious. His willingness to admit that the old model for such institutions must change if they are to remain viable, and then to act on that knowledge, sets him apart from many contemporaries. His actions are worthy of emulation by others in similar positions who still cling to the increasingly archaic notion that a rapidly changing America has no impact on their once insular campuses.
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