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Bard College's bold bid to attract top-quality students

TWO weeks ago, Bard College -- a small, private, liberal-arts school on the Hudson River 100 miles north of New York City -- approved a scholarship program that will allow top high school students to ignore Bard's $15,000 yearly tuition and pay only what they would pay at a state college in their home state -- usually $2,000 to $4,000. Under the new Bard offer, any high school senior who has a grade-point average in the top 10 percent of his or her class can qualify.

Bard's innovative -- and costly -- move to attract high-quality students underscores the competition that is building between public and private colleges around the country. Advocates for private education say state support for public schools makes it increasingly difficult for private institutions to stay competitive. Competition for students

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While the ratio of students at public institutions to those at private ones has remained steady over the past decade, the size of the pool of college-age youth has decreased. Meanwhile, tuition rates for private colleges have nearly doubled, while state university rates -- underwritten by taxpayers -- have increased far less drastically. Currently, public colleges are, on average, $4,000 cheaper per year than private ones, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).

For this reason, ``private colleges are in a more aggressive marketing posture,'' says NAICU president John Phillips. A few years ago, he says, these schools ``let their services speak for themselves -- waited for school counselors to recommend them. Not anymore.''

Bard president Leon Botstein says the program was designed to appeal to high-caliber students who want private education but have decided it was financially unachievable. Director of admissions Mary Backlund says that two weeks after the Jan. 23 announcement, the college had received more than 200 inquiries from across the country. According to Ms. Backlund, the new program appeals to middle-class families who are ``asset-rich but cash-poor -- who can't qualify for much student aid and yet can't afford high tuition.''

On the Bard campus -- in its idyllic, rural setting rimmed by the Catskill Mountains -- Dr. Botstein, a boy wonder as a student, a college president at age 23 -- told the Monitor that private schools are beginning to feel ``the Red Sea effect.'' That's his term for the result of students choosing either distinguished private Ivy League institutions or opting for inexpensive state schools, leaving other private institutions out in the cold.

``The University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin -- these are great universities, and they are affordable,'' he says. Those private schools that do not ``develop a market'' may drown in a sea of demographic shifts and cost overruns. While a ``new class,'' in the private sector, of ``essentially vocational schools without much intellectual distinction'' is proving it can succeed, says Botstein, traditional private schools -- those that have low student-teacher ratios and have made ``significant contributions'' to the nation's artistic and intellectual life -- are faltering.

If the trend doesn't turn around, Botstein says, higher education will become ``overwhelmingly public,'' where ``professors are simply state employees.'' One expert has warned that this trend portends a ``cookie-cutter uniformity'' in higher education. Are states shouldering responsibility?

What can be done?

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Botstein says the answer is to alter the system that requires private schools to compete head on with state schools bolstered by tax money. According to the NAICU, the 50 states spent more than $27 billion on state colleges and universities in fiscal 1984, as opposed to $931 million to help private schools.

At an NAICU press conference in Washington two days ago, former Secretary of Education Terrel Bell condemned what he called the ``benign neglect'' with which states countenance the private colleges that provide them with ``excellent services.'' He charged that the states do not shoulder ``any responsibility for state policies to assist them.''

Uncertainty is increasing over the future of existing federal funding to private schools. Paul Goodwin, an NAICU staff member, says, ``We expect to get beat up pretty bad in the budget this year.'' Usually, he says Congress holds fast against recommendations to cut student aid. But in a year of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, ``no one knows what kind of algebra they will perform.''

Voices against further state aid to private schools say that, in many states, money for public schools is already scarce, and so more money for private education is folly, especially since these schools are not accountable to broad public standards.

Botstein contends that private education ought not to have to fend for itself in what he regards as a parody of a free-market situation. Bard's new tuition-reduction program, he points out, became possible because the school's devoted trustees were able to raise $23 million in two years. ``In the long run,'' he says, ``it's not in the institution's interest to use that money for student aid -- though we now have to.'' He says the money ought to go for better library facilities, staff research, and other neglected enhancements.

Critics say that Bard's proposal deals a blow to the popular concept that scholarship money should be allotted on the basis of need. Botstein disagrees, saying that by making high school performance the sole determinant, ``we render equal the achievement of merit in the way no standardized test does, and no formula does.'' Students in the top 10 percent in an inner-city Detroit school have the same chance as the top 10 percent in affluent Scarsdale, N.Y., says Botstein, adding that the Bard approach is a challenge to the way people think about equity and merit.

``Rather than oppose equity and merit,'' he says, ``we've put them into a calculus.''

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