Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Academic Entrepreneurship in Philadelphia

By Richard Vedder

When you think of higher education in Philadelphia, you usually think of the Ivy League school that ranks consistently in the top 10 in the US News & World Report rankings, the University of Pennsylvania. Or maybe the less prestigious but still major schools like Villanova or Temple. But sometimes I think of Peirce College.

Peirce College is a smaller school offering degrees in business and information technology to mostly working class adults. It is on no one's list of great American colleges. It does not cater to a trendy, elitist group of bright teenagers by offering classes with famous professors and a country club setting for recreation. It does not have Nobel Prize winning scientists on its faculty who are importantly expanding the frontiers of our knowledge. But it provides, at a relatively low cost, a decent quality education to many for whom going to college is a challenge. It was into "improved higher education access" long before it became trendy to talk about it at meetings of the academic elite. And it does not just talk about it, it does something about it.

Peirce's long-time president is Arthur Lendo, who has become something of a friend (we bump into each other at seminars for college presidents, etc.). Art is a bit of an academic entrepreneur (he is a professor of management), and he has expanded the school's horizons in multiple ways --becoming a serious player in on-line education, opening new centers away from the old Philadelphia campus, etc. Enrollments are rising briskly (5-6 percent a year), the school, while relatively poor, is fiscally sound and solidly in the black, and it is starting to get more private gifts, although 87 percent of revenues still come from tuition fees. It is a school that will die if it does not satisfy customers, a situation that keeps it on its toes (and which, unfortunately, does not apply to many schools with a rich endowment or state subsidy cushion). The average daily increase in the value of Harvard's endowment last year roughly equalled the total annual operating expenses of Peirce College. However, I will bet you almost any amount of money that -- dollar for dollar -- Peirce got more good from its very modest resources than Harvard did from its vast riches. As Congress considers taxation and other policies relating to universities, they should think about not only Harvard, but also Peirce and other such colleges that are doing more to fulfill the Jeffersonian vision of equal educational opportunity than schools exuding arrogant elitism.

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