The Operation Varsity Blues admissions bribery scandal at large, prestigious institutions, such as Georgetown and University of Texas, Austin, makes me glad I attended and now teach at obscure, small liberal arts colleges. I attended Rocky Mountain College in Billings, “Montana’s first, Montana’s finest,” and am now a tenured professor at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, home of the mighty Kangaroos.
Very few people reading this article have probably heard of, much less paid a bribe to attend, either of these institutions. But as I know as an alumna of and a faculty member at small liberal arts colleges, these institutions offer needy students a first-rate liberal arts in the service of democratic citizenship— exactly what I needed as a student back in 1994 and precisely what our divided nation needs today. Unfortunately, this scandal comes at a time when more and more Americans believe that higher education is “headed in the wrong direction,” and many dismiss the value of a college degree, especially the worth of a liberal arts education.
I grew up and went to high school in small-town Montana, and my family did not have the means to send me to prestigious, out-of-state institutions. In spite of my limited finances, I was able to attend Rocky Mountain College, a nearby private, liberal arts college. I studied the writing of Charlotte Brontë, Chinua Achebe and Emily Dickinson in small classes where I received individualized instruction. My professors cared about me and encouraged me to consider graduate school in order to become a college professor. They had to explain to me what that meant because this possibility was outside my frame of reference; no one I knew back in Park City had a Ph.D. When I eventually attended graduate school in American literature, I always knew that, despite pressure to seek more impressive research-focused faculty jobs, I wanted to teach at a small, liberal arts college.
I have been teaching at such an institution for 11 years now. Along with courses in American literature, I also teach the first-year writing course — a teaching assignment usually relegated to graduate teaching assistants at larger, more prominent universities. For their first assignment, students write their autobiography as a writer. After years of reading these essays, I know the stories of immigrant students intimidated by writing in English as a Second Language; of pre-med students who once loved writing but had it scared out of them due to the standardized Texas STAAR tests; and of students like me, from rural, underserved public schools. Because Austin College evaluates me primarily as a teacher — we don’t have a “publish or perish” mentality — I am able to foster each student’s deep thinking and learning in the spirit of the liberal arts. My faculty colleagues across campus are able to do the same, and the outcomes show. Our students go on to lead meaningful, successful, and financially stable lives — even the English majors!
Yet high-impact, small liberal arts colleges like Rocky Mountain College and Austin College can be overlooked and underestimated by prospective students and donors alike. Recently, many of these small colleges have been closing at an alarming rate due to political and financial forces outside their control. This recent admissions scandal indicates that we need to invest in and value even more small liberal arts colleges and the education that they provide rather than fetishize the status of larger institutions. I will never question the value, quality, or integrity of the liberal arts education I received and now provide, while those at more prestigious and elite institutions, in light of Operation Varsity Blues, probably should.