Why Malcolm Gladwell Has This Non-Millennial Thinking About Student Debt

 

This past spring I was invited to sit on a scholarship interview panel at my alma mater. One by one, every fifteen minutes, for several hours, a different student would tentatively push open the door to our small conference tucked away in the corner of the alumni building.

 

The interview panel was fairly small, about a half dozen alums, and I like to think we were a genial bunch. But it was undoubtedly intimidating for the students, and several of them were visibly nervous at the onset of the interview. The interviewing team did our best to set them at ease, offering water, encouraging smiles and sincere compliments on their numerous academic and extracurricular achievements.

And there were certainly plenty of compliments to give. Each student seemed more impressive than the last. Straight A student. First chair in the orchestra. Hundreds of community service hours. Captain of the football team. Assisting in groundbreaking scientific research. As the parade of amazing students carried on throughout the day, it became clear that the caliber of the student body has certainly improved since my days as a bumbling undergrad.

There was also one other thing I became certain of – the cost of quality higher education has become astronomical. Since the scholarships we were awarding were part merit and part need-based, many of our questions focused on the student’s ability to pay for college and their subsequent debt-load.

Sometimes it was quite clear that a student’s debt far exceeded their means such as the student who spoke in awe of her single-mom working long hours as a home health care aide. And then there were the students who, completely overwhelmed by their enormous impending student loans, could not even bare to wager a guess at the size of their debt.

Thankfully these students attended a university known for its scholarship and grant generosity. They will graduate with debt, but definitely not nearly the debt they would have occurred if they had paid full price for tuition, room, and board.

That night, I drove home from campus sore and tired. I no longer had the limber body of a college co-ed and hours sitting at a table had wrenched my back. And I certainly did not have the energy levels of a twenty-year-old, and the interviews had mentally drained me. But despite my old lady aches and pains, my brain raced. I was inspired by the talented students I had got to know that day and delighted that I was able to play a small part in reducing their debt burdens.

And I was conflicted. What about the other students? What about the excellent students from disadvantaged backgrounds who might have the right high school counseling to guide them to well-funded private universities, with their generous scholarship pools? What about the average students who do not have the grades for the aforementioned well-endowed campuses? How will they pay for college?

At my age (let’s just say I am not a Millennial…), student debt had been a distant memory. But now it was at forefront of my mind again.

. . .

I happened upon Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast series, via Tim Ferris. Anyone who follows me on social media knows that I am a sucker for lifestyle hacks, of which Tim is the reigning king. I’m a Tim devotee, and always willing to give his (often obscure) recommendations a try.

Recommending this podcast series was a fairly mainstream move for Tim, given Malcolm Gladwell is the best-selling author behind mega-hits such as “The Tipping Point” and “Blink.” But it certainly was a solid recommendation, and I can understand why Tim endorsed Gladwell’s podcast.

As an author, Malcolm Gladwell is the rare combination of gifted storyteller and numbers geek, with the ability to enthrall despite submerging you in data. His podcast did not disappoint. Entitled “Revisionist History,” Gladwell revisits headlines from the past with an analytical lenses.

Why? “Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.”

I discovered “Revisionist History” about the same time I was involved in the scholarship interviews. The timing was both coincidental and compelling. The series included three episodes exploring social, economic and cultural factors that made higher education inaccessible for underprivileged kids.

I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, so I am not going to reveal too much about those episodes. But I will include the synopsis from revisionisthistory.com:

EPISODE 04: CARLOS DOESN’T REMEMBER

Carlos is a brilliant student from South Los Angeles. He attends an exclusive private school on an academic scholarship. He is the kind of person the American meritocracy is supposed to reward. But in the hidden details of his life lies a cautionary tale about how hard it is to rise from the bottom to the top—and why the American school system, despite its best efforts, continues to leave an extraordinary amount of talent on the table.

“Carlos Doesn’t Remember” is the first in a three-part Revisionist History miniseries taking a critical look at the idea of capitalization—the measure of how well America is making use of its human potential.

EPISODE 05: FOOD FIGHT

Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in upstate New York are roughly the same size. They compete for the same students. Both have long traditions of academic excellence. But one of those schools is trying hard to close the gap between rich and poor in American society—and paying a high price for its effort. The other is making that problem worse—and reaping rewards as a result.

“Food Fight,” the second of the three-part Revisionist History miniseries on opening up college to poor kids, focuses on a seemingly unlikely target: how the food each school serves in its cafeteria can improve or distort the educational system.

EPISODE 06: MY LITTLE HUNDRED MILLION

In the early ’90s, Hank Rowan gave $100 million to a university in New Jersey, an act of extraordinary generosity that helped launch the greatest explosion in educational philanthropy since the days of Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers. But Rowan gave his money to Glassboro State University, a tiny, almost bankrupt school in South Jersey, while almost all of the philanthropists who followed his lead made their donations to elite schools such as Harvard and Yale. Why did no one follow Rowan’s example?

My on-campus interview experience, coupled with these podcasts, certainly have me thinking critically about the current and future states of higher education. Is the current model still relevant? Is the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” widening? What will higher education look like fifty years now?

Take a listen to Revisionist History and let me know what you think.

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