Fancy Feast: Gladwell Shames Bowdoin For Choosing Food Over Financial Aid

In a sloppy Joe of a podcast episode, the author makes a controversial argument about college spending

From Bowdoin’s Insta-feed

Public intellectual Malcolm Gladwell has a new podcast called “Revisionist History” and perhaps as a way of ensuring its buzzworthiness, he has picked a fight with elite liberal arts school Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME; currently tied for #4 on US News’s rankings). “Don’t go to Bowdoin,” he tells listeners in his conclusion. “Don’t send your kids to Bowdoin.”

Bowdoin’s crime? Prioritizing fancy food over financial aid. Or so Gladwell seems to assume. Bowdoin, after all, has a first-class dining hall but is only pretty good at ensuring access to poor, academically gifted students. (The Times rates the school as slightly better than average.)

Gladwell also visits Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY; #12), another fancy, elite, private institution, where administrators have had to make tough choices, like cutting back on amenities such as food and housing, so as to up its numbers of worthy, low-income applicants. Its efforts have produced both good results and good press:

Since [President Hill] took over a decade ago, the student body of 2,450 has become the most diverse it has been since the college was founded in 1861.
Last year, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awarded Vassar its inaugural $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence for success in attracting and graduating low-income students.
Vassar has more than doubled the number of its low-income students during Ms. Hill’s tenure. The college’s financial aid budget has more than doubled to over $60 million; about 60 percent of current students receive some scholarship aid. Nearly a quarter of Vassar’s current first-year students are eligible for a Pell grant, which is available to students whose annual family income is $40,000 or less.

The trouble is, Gladwell does not actually speak to anyone at Bowdoin who could comment on whether the school considered spending more on financial aid and then decided, “Nah, let’s give the 18-year-olds steak and lobster instead.” He assumes they made that trade-off, and he castigates the school accordingly.

The school was not pleased. In fact, Bowdoin argues, in a statement that gives off so much heat it could leave a lamb chop nicely seared, it is demonstrably committed to diversity and to high-quality meals.

Bowdoin’s commitment to meeting the full financial need for all admitted students is longstanding, unwavering, and unassailable. And it has nothing to do with food.

The evidence it marshals seems strong. For example, “Bowdoin is one of only fifteen colleges in the United States that provides need-blind admission, meets the full need of all who qualify for need-based aid, and meets 100 percent of need with grants only.” The size of an average grant is over $40K. Not bad, considering tuition and fees come to $48,200.

Vassar charges $51,300.

It appears that Gladwell has good intentions. He wants to draw our attention to spending in higher ed and he wants us, as a nation, to rally in support of schools like Vassar that recruit students from working class families, even if that means the institutions have to make sacrifices. But picking Bowdoin as his villain because it offers good food is a strange choice. The college deserves praise for retaining need-blind admissions even as others have phased that out. Bowdoin isn’t choosing Pellegrino over Pell grants. Anyway, as a Inside HigherEd commenter points out, “Food is a red herring — or at Bowdoin maybe sole amandine.” Schools like Smith (Northampton, MA; tied for #14) manage to provide notably good food to an economically mixed population. And it charges students $46,288, less than Bowdoin or Vassar.

Even if none of that were true, though, not giving the school a chance to comment would still be unfair, if not poor journalism.

When confronted with criticism of his methods and his conclusion, Gladwell doubled-down.

That’s too bad, because it makes him come off as unable to think deeply about, let alone metabolize, criticism. Also because, again, he kind of has a point: not about Bowdoin, necessarily, but about schools in general that eschew their responsibility as tax-exempt institutions to serve the public good by educating a wide array of worthy candidates, and not merely wealthy ones.