Look more closely at higher ed with new glasses

Pictured above are the glasses I received from Warby Parker, the "Nedwin," total cost $125. My prescription, which universally causes opticians to wince, is better suited to high-index lenses, so I opted for the $30 upgrade to avoid the pop-bottle look.

They came in a lovely black box nestled in a sturdy, handsome case about 10 days after I made the order. I couldn't be more delighted. No tax. No shipping charges. And the quality? Better than most of the frames I've tried in our warehouse stores.

But this post really isn't about glasses, or about the academic novels upon which they are perched. (Though, I would highly endorse each and every one in the photo.) This is about looking at higher education clearly.

Our colleges and universities have been taking it on the chin lately, as Republican candidates traipse around America trying to be all mavericky and working classy--not like that fancy Mr. Obama, who thinks everyone should go to college.

Mr. Obama, does not in fact think everyone should go to college in the ivy-covered-walls sense of the word. In response to Mr. Santorum's accusation of snobbery, Mr. Obama clarified his position, saying, “We are talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that now is requiring someone walking through the door handling a million-dollar piece of equipment,” Mr. Obama said. “And they can’t go in there unless they have some basic training beyond what they received in high school.”

Not everyone should pursue a traditional, liberal arts education because not everyone wants to spend four years studying Euripides or Isabelle Allende or Maynard Keynes or doing advanced algebra. And therein lies the beauty of the American higher education system. Unlike Canada where the number of university "seats" is limited--Canada has only 83 universities and about 100 colleges--we have some 4,000 accredited institutions of higher learning representing almost every flavor and variety, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, conservatories, art schools, residential, non-residential, engineering schools, block programs, great books programs, online degrees, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, women's colleges, colleges targeted to adult learners, health sciences schools, tier I research universities, ag colleges, community colleges and more.

An editorial in The New York Times yesterday by Columbia University Professor Andrew Delbanco, talks about the limits of a so-called elite education, calling it "smug." He makes a valid point; on the East Coast, you can't spend five minutes chatting with someone before out pops, "When I was at Harvard, Yale, Princeton...fill in the blank," as if four years of undergraduate study at an Ivy League school imparts a special shine.

Outchere in the West, we don't care. We don't introduce ourselves with past glories but with present accomplishments. Westerners are "what-can-you-do-for-me-now" folk. We believe in higher education, but we don't necessarily think someone is better educated if she went to Dartmouth or Penn.

What Mr. Delbanco's article implies is that America's elite schools represent the golden ticket, the only path to the American dream. And, he's right to the degree that an "elite" education can put students in good company for jobs and other opportunities.

But the top U.S. News and World Report colleges and universities don't have a lock on educational excellence. They have learned to play a very specific game that's not open to non-traditional schools where graduation rates and alumni participation lag.

Good teachers are everywhere. I've worked on some 50 college campuses, interviewing students, administrators and faculty. I've been brought to tears with stories of student transformation, of how middling high-school students catch fire in freshman or sophomore biology, English or business, work hard and then land in medical school, at Pixar or helping in Haiti. I've sat with faculty, who have told me stories of lending money to students to help them pay for school, who have brought students into their homes during times of crisis, and made countless phone calls on students' behalf to land them internships.

Yes, our college campuses can be hide-bound, slow-to-change places. But with 4,000 to choose from, there's indeed something for everybody.



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