The World Renewed with Love Divine

Christmas Festival: A St. Olaf Tradition

There aren’t many events that survive for more than a century. The St. Olaf Christmas Festival, first offered in 1912, has more than survived – it has thrived. The 102nd performance – this year titled The World Renewed with Love Divine – will be staged this coming weekend (December 4-7), with nearly 1,000 student singers and musicians. It is one of St. Olaf’s signature traditions and one of the finest holiday musical events of the season.

It is truly remarkable, given the quality of the music, how few of the student musicians are music majors. One of the cardinal virtues of a liberal arts education is the broad curiosity it inspires and sustains. This virtue is on full display when we listen to the artistry of biologists and economists, philosophers and historians, theologians and thespians who have a deep love of music. They devote themselves to the practice necessary to master their instruments, and they commit long hours to intense rehearsals at one of the busiest times of the semester.

The same liberal arts sensibility infuses the music faculty who plan the program, write and arrange the music, and conduct with flair. They are acutely aware of the history of the music they perform, the history of the Christmas Festival in the life of the college, and the gift it represents to everyone who experiences Christmas Fest.

This is a good time to thank all of the students and faculty who offer us this gift. And it’s a good time to invite everyone to enjoy the performance, whether live on campus or through the national television and radio broadcasts.

The world is, for at least two hours in early December, indeed renewed with love divine.


If you can’t join us…

Click here for information about the live stream on December 7th, and for information about national radio and television broadcasts.

American Public Media will offer music from this year’s Festival over classical music stations across the country. Check your local listings for broadcasts in your area.

Christmas in Norway with the St. Olaf Choir will again be broadcast on the stations of the PBS system. Check your local public television schedule broadcasts in your area.

Walking the Walk on Access

Walking the Walk on Access

In his New York Times column “The Upshot,” David Leonhardt recently wrote about the percentage of students receiving Pell grants at the nation’s top colleges and universities. He used Pell grants as a proxy for socioeconomic diversity in the student body, and as a measure of access to good colleges (four-year graduation rates above 75%) for students from low-income families. In 2012, the latest year in Leonhardt’s study, about 14% of St. Olaf’s students qualified for Pell grants, putting us right in the middle of the 100 listed schools. The fact that we are in the lowest third of this group in endowment per student shows that we overachieve in providing access.

This has been a high priority of the college since the beginning. For the past several years, the proportion of students receiving Pell grants has held steady at 14-15%, as has the proportion of first-generation college students (this year 17%, but generally also 14-15%, although the two populations are not necessarily the same). By these measures, supported by our long-standing commitment to meeting all students’ demonstrated need without “gapping,” St. Olaf is fulfilling our promises and living by our values.

Pell grants and access at the front end of the St. Olaf experience are important, but they are not the only things that matter. True access to the St. Olaf experience requires that we also pay attention to how thoroughly all students – especially low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, and international students – take advantage of our programs and resources. Are these students proportionally represented across majors? In our international and off-campus programs? In our music ensembles? On our athletic teams? Are they participating in and leading student organizations, undertaking research, and pursuing internships?

We do a good job recruiting and enrolling students from increasingly diverse life circumstances and backgrounds. The more nuanced challenge is being sure we also encourage and support them as they navigate their four years at St. Olaf. While every Ole has a unique experience, we need to be sure all Oles have – and take advantage of – the same opportunities.

St. Olaf Recognized for High Quality Teaching

In September, the maple trees on the St. Olaf campus begin the spectacular transition to fall colors. Every year is different and yet somehow reassuringly the same.

Also in September, the magazine U.S. News & World Report releases its annual rankings of colleges and universities. This year, St. Olaf was ranked #2 among national liberal arts colleges for the quality of teaching. (Our colleagues across the river at Carleton were #1, which speaks highly for the life of the mind in Northfield.)

Here’s how U.S. News arrived at that ranking: “The rankings . . . focus on schools whose faculty and administrators are committed to teaching undergraduate students in a high-quality manner. College presidents, provosts and admissions deans who participated in the annual U.S. News peer assessment survey were asked to nominate up to 10 schools in their ranking category with a strength in undergraduate teaching.”

Teaching is the primary thing we do. To be sure, our faculty are active scholars, scientists, creators, and performers. We understand that professional practice is necessary to good teaching. But dedicated professors, working closely with their students, form the core of the St. Olaf experience. Our small classes lend themselves to dynamic teaching and learning, and the one-on-one relationships that develop between professors and students are a rich source of mentorship and guidance that ripple far beyond a particular class.

New Report on Student Loan Default Rates.

What Loan Default Rates Say About a College

On September 24th, the U.S. Department of Education released its latest report on student loan defaults (New York Times article here, U.S. DOE press release here). The headline news is that national default rates have fallen. What’s missing in the reporting is an analysis of which institutions have problems with student loan defaults, and which don’t.

Here’s how the story is typically reported (the figures are for FY 2011).

  • National student default rate: 13.7%
  • Minnesota student default rate: 12.0%
  • Minnesota public, 4-year institution student default rate: 8.9%
  • Minnesota private, four-year institution student default rate: 7.0%
  • St. Olaf student default rate: 1.6%

(Students of our friendly competitors, Carleton and Macalester, had default rates of 2.3% and 1.6%, respectively.)

The national statistics and the state-level statistics showed a modest decline from the prior year. The data also show that students from private colleges like St. Olaf didn’t have a default problem to begin with, and they still don’t.

It’s not that our students don’t borrow; it’s that they don’t borrow too much. About 60% of our students use debt to pay a portion of the cost of their education, borrowing an average of just over $27,000. It’s an amount that requires a monthly payment of approximately $300. Since we attract students who grow into responsible young adults and generally graduate with clear plans for employment or further education, they handle a manageable amount of debt well.

We’ve long believed that students should be willing to invest in themselves. We’ve also been committed to providing need-based financial aid that does not unduly burden a student’s future. That doesn’t mean the loan payments are easy – in many cases they are a challenge – but it does mean that our students accept (and repay) those obligations as part of the price the excellent education they receive.

Even though the USDOE report highlights the strong performance of St. Olaf and its peers, there is a significant, under-reported problem: the amount of debt and high default rates of students of proprietary schools, which have an average default rate of 18.6%.

Perhaps the national conversation should focus on schools that promise training for specific jobs that don’t materialize. The high default rate suggests that those promises don’t pan out, but a broad, liberal arts education certainly appears to prepare students to launch their post-college lives on a sound foundation.

President Obama Lays out “better Bargain for the Middle Class”

The White House has released a plan to address college costs.  It includes measures of value, such as graduation rate and post-graduation income.  St. Olaf performs very well on these measures.  The efficacy of the President’s plan, if it is adopted, will depend considerably on whether the measures employed are applicable to all institutions and whether they yield accurate data.