Inspector Bucket's Plan for Student Recruitment

To tell 17-year-olds that they might have a chance to do something interesting—in four years—isn’t very persuasive


Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket
July 23, 2014

In a June column, I focused on the downsizing trend at small liberal-arts colleges and universities, and argued in favor of growing, not shrinking, them. Instead of the frightened rhetoric of cutbacks, I suggested we seek a 21st-century renaissance at those campuses, because we believe in what we do and, well, to hell with defeat.

But if we’re going to expand the liberal-arts college, we need to attract students—to many of whom it would be news that excellent institutions (after perhaps the first tier) are all too desperate for them. And yet the attempts we make to attract students are often lame: mailings that go immediately in the trash, campus tours that are exhausting and hackneyed, claims for uniqueness that all sound the same.

Let’s stow all that and make three new connections. The first is to the great Inspector Bucket of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, in consideration of the particularity of individual students. Bucket, like so many Dickens characters, has a verbal tic, but his is a knowing and brilliant one. "I know who you are," he says, and then goes on (unless he is unmasking a culprit) to reflect back a strongly admiring and specific description of his interlocutor.

"I know you. You’re a man of the world," he tells the unworldly innocent George. "You’re a model, that’s what you are," he more forthrightly tells the virtuous heroine Esther. "Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, you are a gentleman, … and a gentleman can bear a shock," he tells the aristocrat, at once reminding him of his best self and preparing him for the shock that his beloved wife may be a murderer. Sometimes merely reflecting a person’s reality, sometimes exaggerating it into being, Bucket behaves stealthily yet ethically and gets what he wants. As can we, if we approach prospective students with Bucket’s specificity.

Most colleges tend to say, "You’re a swell kid, we’re a swell place, come join us." What if, instead, we were to say, "We know who you are and what particularly interests you, and we have an opportunity for you, starting as soon as you get here."?

That approach bears some relation to the trend of designing first-year courses with students’ interests in mind, as reported in The Chronicle recently, "A Curriculum for the Selfie Generation." But there are two crucial differences. The model I have in mind treats prospective students as engaged intellectuals in the world, not as pampered narcissists, and it goes well beyond a single course toward an ambitious set of programs.

I have seen this approach, and it works several kinds of wonder. First, it mightily attracts students. When I was at Drew University, my colleague Amy Koritz became the head of our new Center for Civic Engagement. It didn’t have much funding, but Amy made the second connection, which usually is not made: She connected the curriculum to financial aid. Recirculating tuition revenue as aid is where every college is actually rich, but we tend to use the money dully, at best tying honorific and meaningless names to the awards.

Instead, Drew began a Civic Scholars program, which involved a first-year seminar of considering experiential learning, practicing it, and reflecting upon it. Students take a first-year seminar and a few credits of increasingly ambitious workshops; they also pledge to spend 100 hours annually in applied learning projects. Those accepted into the program received a relatively small addition of merit aid. The money—$5,000—was less a scholarship than a contract that obligated students to interest others in their projects.

The cost was minimal: less than 2 percent of the financial-aid budget, a one-page flier, a website page, an additional few faculty assignments, and a staff member.

The results have been startling. Yield typically has been triple the overall figure, and retention has been well above the usual. Even students who applied but could not be accommodated in the program enrolled at the university at a much higher rate than the norm. Many of those students have testified that they would otherwise not have considered Drew or even heard about it. And, of course, they were exactly the kind of students one wishes to attract, not only academically strong but also socially and intellectually inspiring, the kind of catalyst students who don’t just join clubs in high school but start them.

Civic engagement may not be the Inspector Bucket identifier for every student, or even most of them. To devise other approaches, you can make a connection that often goes neglected—between admissions-staff members, who understand what 17-year-olds are thinking about, and faculty members, who are in charge of the curriculum.

So, in addition to Civic Scholars, an institution might create three or four other special-interest programs, paying less attention to disciplines than to the always interdisciplinary life issues that matter to prospective students. A college might consider a first-year program in peace studies, entrepreneurship, environmental sustainability, performance, conflict resolution, health, or "great books," which might constitute an honors program. (That was the other new program at Drew where yield and retention were especially strong.) Pick emphases that come naturally out of existing faculty interests, and perhaps choose some high schools and make awards in the name of your institution to the juniors who already best exemplify these interests: say, a $25 book certificate.

You can create those special-interest programs in time for the very next admissions cycle. And, again, the cost will be astonishingly low. It will take one faculty member’s full workload to lead and teach in each program, a few additional course assignments, a one-page promotional piece for each program widely distributed to high-school counselors, some one-time summer stipends for group planning, a continuing assessment plan, and a small percent of the existing financial-aid budget to award some extra money to admittees in each program. That sum can be compensated for by a negligible reduction in the rest of available aid, just as the course assignments will be compensated for by eliminating less attractive first-year offerings. For which you may well have leveraged a new heaven and a new earth for the institution.

Granted, any number of students, including some very interesting ones, are loose fish. They will want to swim free of a special interest at the beginning of their college careers. But if just half of the prospective students are drawn to one or another of the four or five Bucket programs that imply "we know who you are," your yield and retention rates will create an entirely different and far happier financial situation for the college. The intellectual life of the campus and its overall spirit will improve. You will attract more self-starting students, who will serve as exemplars to others. And faculty members will themselves be making new connections without leaving behind their expertise and interests.

In fact, we will have accomplished three additional changes that will serve our colleges well. And here, I would urge the Bucket strategy equally upon liberal-arts colleges of large universities, where a larger number of such programs (though they may not be needed to recruit students) may improve the learning experience of new undergraduates by making it more intimate. (When I was on the faculty at the University of Michigan, I would advise prospective students to attach themselves to one or another special program, even ones that were not stellar, for this would be far more enjoyable and rewarding than swimming around aimlessly in a huge fishbowl.)

Now for the changes: First, we will have flipped the faculty—that is, we will have made the teaching of first-years more compelling for many of our best scholar-teachers.

Second, we will have flipped the curriculum. We now almost always save the best for last, keeping any special opportunities confined to juniors and seniors. We’ve already seen the successful results when some colleges offer study abroad to incoming students rather than making them wait until much later. The Bucket programs do the same. To tell 17-year-olds living in the Now that they might have a chance to do something interesting in four years isn’t very persuasive. In fact, it is downright discouraging. How much better to have something as ready for them as they are for it, just on the other side of summer.

And finally, we will have employed the extraordinary strengths of disciplinary expertise while avoiding their imprisoning aspects. The crucial human issues do not come in neat packages labeled English, political science, or physics. A near-contemporary of Inspector Bucket, Huck Finn, complains about how, at the Widow’s, "everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better."

With Bucket, as with barrel, things will go better for us as well.

Robert Weisbuch is a professor emeritus of English literature at the University of Michigan and a project adviser to the American Historical Association. He is a former president of Drew University and a former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.