Simpson president Jay Simmons explains some of the thinking behind the free tuition idea.
Rodney White/The Register
Simpson College is one of Iowa’s most storied institutions. Before George Washington Carver improved lives worldwide with his agricultural innovations, Simpson was the first to open its doors to the former slave.
Before Drake University absorbed one of the now 25th-oldest law schools in the country, Simpson is where Iowa Supreme Court Justices Wright and Cole first implemented their vision for legal education in the Des Moines area.
And before the Stanford Business School became the world leader in innovative business education, Simpson alumnus Dean Jacob Hugh Jackson took it from bankruptcy to prominence during his 25 years at the helm.
The innovations and achievements of Simpson College and its alumni should be a source of pride for all Iowans. Which is exactly why “The Simpson Promise” should be a statewide embarrassment.
Higher education is going through an identity crisis at the height of an industry bubble. The cost of private, liberal arts colleges has outpaced their value for years. The trustees who serve their alma maters often struggle to understand how the institutions they love have become inaccessible to those teenage versions of themselves. The communities that are often economically buoyed by high value faculty and staff jobs and student spending are struggling to understand what comes next if these sources of commercial and societal wealth disappear. And any administrators who were barely prepared to manage these complex organizations when things were going well are struggling to even understand the magnitude of their current responsibilities, let alone provide the strategic leadership needed to prepare for the future.
Nearly all of our rural liberal arts colleges are struggling. Nearly all of these institutions are seeking differentiators. Yet all Iowans should be embarrassed that Simpson is differentiating itself through deception.
After covering president Jay Simmons’s spin on “The Simpson Promise,” the Register’s Editorial Board rightly pointed out that Simpson College’s promise of “free” education is still quite expensive. Adding up the “small print” shows that the low income families Simpson College is now courting will pay roughly the same amount as its highest performing students coming from its wealthiest families. This willful omission preys upon those parents who desperately want their children to have a seat at the table. It smells of a television advertisement for a product that is “only six installments of $19.99.” And it is mortgaging the futures of our fellow citizens who most need an honest break. In short, “The Simpson Promise” is a cynical shell game cooked up by a consultant seeking to Band Aid an amputation.
Restoring value at our private liberal arts institutions is not easy. In many cases it will require faculty and staff to fundamentally change how they support the campus and community. In most cases it will require a re-imagining of what each institution can do alone and how it must partner beyond its campus. And in all cases it requires a deliberate, strategic focus on challenging past assumptions. Remaking these storied Iowa institutions for the modern world requires leaders who seek out transformational innovations rooted in Iowa values.
It is not surprising that president Simmons is selling a false promise. After driving Iowa Wesleyan to the edge of ruin, he is gutting Simpson College’s most successful departments. For example, after the National Science Foundation awarded Simpson more than half a million dollars to implement new teaching methods focused on improving the industrial applicability of its STEM education for the kinds of students “The Simpson Promise” is supposedly targeting, Simmons almost immediately slashed the resources supporting that effort by more than half.
Instead of investing in those programs that deliver the most value, Simmons is paying consultants to deflect responsibility. For example, after missing enrollment targets set by an outside consultant for every year he has been on campus, Simmons has continued to invest more in the consultants whose advice is resulting in missed targets than any of the senior administrators who are stuck implementing failed theories.
Instead of making the hard decisions that will prepare the institution for a future of achievement, Simmons is raiding the endowment that was built by a century of hard work. After sizing up a significant structural deficit that requires a strategic refocusing of resources, Simmons fought and won the opportunity to draw down 6% of the Simpson College endowment once a year had passed without offering the trustees any other viable option.
And instead of being honest with parents who want the best for their children, he is now promising to saddle their grandchildren with an unconscionable burden of inescapable debt.
Simpson is a storied institution with limitless potential. Its alumni are some of our most successful and powerful in our state. “The Simpson Promise” does not reflect the honor of the institution, the faculty and staff who serve it, and the alumni it has served. I am hopeful that leaders within the Simpson community will direct the administration back to an honorable path. For the current direction promises to become a debt shouldered by all Iowans.
Chris Draper previously served as the Founding Director of the Simpson College EMERGE program and is the author of “Rediscovering our Future: The Modern Liberal Arts Education Manifesto.”
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