Friday, January 04, 2008

Crisis at Deep Springs College

By Richard Vedder

I read in INSIDE HIGHER ED that the president of Deep Springs College is out in a dispute over fundraising. With only 26 students, Deep Springs is one of the smallest, if not THE smallest school in the country, but its operation adds vibrance, competition and diversity to America's system of higher education.

Deep Springs is different --really different. It is located in the middle of nowhere. It takes no female students. Students work on the college farm while studying. The curriculum is traditional liberal arts in nature. Total enrollment is only 26. Classes are obviously very small, almost tutorial in nature. It certainly is not for everyone. It is only two years --and then students transfer, very often to prestigious liberal arts colleges or universities.

The strength of American higher education is that it allows for and nurtures schools like Deep Springs. It does not follow a one-size-fits-all mold administered by a national education ministry. There is true diversity with respect to curriculum and other dimensions of campus life. We need schools like Deep Springs, but also Antioch College (progressive liberal arts orientation), Hillsdale College (conservative school that takes no federal money), and Berea College (tuition free school catering to the poor).

Therein lies a dilemma. In our desire to push colleges to tell us more about what they do, to be more transparent, more accountable, there is a temptation to set "standards" of performance that simply do not fit all types of colleges and universities. National regulation is the antithesis of experimentation and diversity. For Deep Springs, the sign of success is that students keep coming, and they go on to successful careers at other schools of distinction. But those criteria do not fit very well for, say, Indiana University or Cuyahoga Community College.

I hope Deep Springs overcomes whatever problems it might have, and continues to flourish as an alternative means of education.

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