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Hey, Profs, Come Back to Earth

One middle-class mother from Baltimore recently asked me if universities value anything other than raising money and squirreling away multi-million-dollar endowments. She was frustrated that she and her husband would need to retire five years later than they had planned because of the cost of their son's education at Northwestern University.

Some universities use financial aid as a way to compete for the most desirable students. Kids get the message that money talks at these campuses. One of my clients just chose Syracuse University -- not because of the educational quality, but because the high tuition there at least has a tradeoff. "They will help you get a job afterwards," he said.

The talk of campus: The author argues that universities are too embroiled in political controversies, such as the one that brought the media, above, to Columbia last month. (Tina Fineberg -- AP)

Over-the-top professors and enthusiastic development officers with insatiable appetites for more funds will probably always be with us. But the sheer number of outlandish political controversies at universities across the country, coupled with escalating fees, is alienating parents from the very institutions they have been supporting through tax and tuition dollars.

I'm not arguing that universities should teach only engineering, business and computer science. Liberal arts courses, taught in the context of free speech, have always helped open young minds to the excitement of the marketplace of ideas and to the value of even unpopular opinions. But that tradition seems to have been stood on its head. There is a world of difference between challenging students to think more broadly and trying to shoehorn them into a more narrow spectrum of thought, which many parents feel is happening.

To many consumers of higher education, colleges have lost their way and have strayed outside the mainstream. And the backlash is upon us. State governments, strapped for cash, see higher education as one place to cut costs; the U.S. House of Representatives considered legislation to rein in tuition in 2003; and there is now an advocacy group in Washington, College Parents of America, that lobbies for the increased involvement of parents in university communities.

Even loyal alumni are pushing back -- in part, I believe, because of recent professor-led campus political battles. The national percentage of alumni donating to their alma maters has declined for three years in a row and is now below 13 percent.

Our top universities were once widely respected -- not resented -- by the middle class. In 1902, Woodrow Wilson began his public career when he was inaugurated as Princeton's president. Fast forward to 2002, when the Princeton admissions staff was caught hacking into Yale's admissions database to gain a marketing edge.

Maybe we can learn from recent campus incidents. Maybe we can ask ourselves what we would like our universities to actually do. Maybe university communities can engage in real soul-searching to figure out how they can benefit both their students and the country in ways that the broader public can support.

If they don't at least try, the university as an institution may have seen the heyday of its influence.

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Steve Goodman is a Washington-based educational consultant who advises college-bound students and their families in the United States and abroad.

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