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Harvard president says college is about much more than money

WASHINGTON – The federal government is building its first comprehensive system for rating colleges on measures of value and access. You might think that Harvard University, perennially ranked at or near the top in higher education, would be unconcerned.

You would be wrong.

“I think it raises the issue of what do you rate them for?” Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust told the Washington Post. “It goes back to what is college worth. What are you going to say? Is it all going to be about how much more money an individual makes with a college degree?”

Whatever formula the Education Department devises for ratings, Faust said, should consider numerous factors.

“Give a multifaceted, nuanced picture of what colleges do,” Faust said. “Certainly the dropout rate . . . would be something worth understanding about a college. But I think these should be very complex portraits of institutions. And not reduce an institution to a simple metric.”

The federal rating initiative was one of several topics Faust discussed in a recent visit to the Post.

Harvard’s 28th president, in office since 2007, has sought to kindle a conversation about what she calls “the case for college.” In a speech in Dallas in October, Faust urged high school students to keep in mind the many reasons – not just economic ones – for going to college.

“There’s a lot of noise in the press and online about college not being worth it – being too expensive, unnecessary, just go start your start-up, just go be an entrepreneur,” Faust said. Worried that this view is getting traction, Faust said she wants to provide a counter-argument.

She is well aware that, for many Americans, going to college is about getting the right credential to launch their careers.

“Which is, of course, important,” Faust said. “Economic growth is important. People’s ability to support their families and lead lives that are not dogged by financial uncertainty and stress – that is important. But I think we also need to understand that college is about much more than that.” Meeting new people, for instance, and new worlds of thought. Finding new goals. Discovering the value of deliberation.

Faust said the economic rationale sometimes gets too much attention on her own campus in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s true even of our students, who come now very anxious about what job they’re going to have, how their freshman choice of courses is going to relate to their employability,” she said. “I worry they’re going to waste Harvard if that’s the only attitude and approach they have to their education.”

To some, it might seem incongruous for the leader of one of the world’s most elite and exclusive universities to be spearheading an effort to get more people to go to college. Harvard, with about 6,700 undergraduates in its college, turned down 94 percent of those who applied to enter this year.

“My case is not that everybody should come to Harvard or send an application to Harvard,” Faust said. “My case is that we have in the United States one of the most extraordinary assets in the world, which is our higher education system and its diversity.. . . So students can look for a lot of different aspects of education as they choose where they might want to go and what they might want to do.”

This year Stanford and Yale, two other ultra-selective private universities, said they plan to expand their entering classes. Faust said she is not considering expansion “at this particular time” because Harvard is in the midst of efforts to improve its undergraduate experience.

“Not closing the subject at all,” she said. “We’ll have that discussion when we move a little more into this project.”