Magazine article Insight on the News

Hillsdale Goes It Alone, Remains True to Itself

Magazine article Insight on the News

Hillsdale Goes It Alone, Remains True to Itself

Article excerpt

The differences between Hillsdale College and other institutions are manifested from the bottom up. The small, rural school has faced adversity in blazing its own trail and revels in its independence.

Hillsdale College lies on the north side of Hillsdale, Mich., a small town of about 8,000 in the southern part of the state near the Ohio and Indiana borders. "A part of the heartland of America," Hillsdale College President George Roche likes to call it.

Well-tended farms are close by, and sows nursing spring litters are visible from the highway. Downtown Hillsdale is home to a couple of churches -- St. Anthony Catholic and St. Peter's Episcopal, along with a few shops, some of them open in the evening.

It comes as a surprise that this small town is home to a college -- and then it doesn't surprise at all, because the kind of fierce independence that has given Hillsdale a name in education circles is probably at home here in bucolic Michigan.

Hillsdale College accepts no federal money -- not for new buildings, not for student loans -- which makes it rare among American colleges and universities. (Grove City College in Pennsylvania also refuses government aid for its students.) Such staunch individualism comes in part from the college's own past, "a past whose logic we've built on," says Roche.

Founded by Free-Will Baptists in 1844 (the school now is nonsectarian), Hillsdale from its inception accepted women and blacks, almost unheard of in America then. The school granted the first bachelor's degree to a woman in Michigan (only the second granted to a woman in the United States) and was among the first to graduate African-Americans.

But Hillsdale's traditional independence was tested and honed in a recent, 10-year struggle against the federal government that began with a 1975 letter demanding the college's compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Among other things, Hillsdale was told that if its students received federal loans (the only form of federal assistance at Hillsdale at the time), it must keep detailed records of all student and employee applications, suspensions, promotions and other events, compiled by race, sex and ethnicity -- and be ready to submit them to federal authorities when requested.

Angered by what it regarded as government intrusion into its private affairs, the school went to court. But in 1984, in Grove City College vs. Bell (a case the Supreme Court decided while it held the Hillsdale case in abeyance), the high court ruled that if just one student at a college accepted a federal loan, the entire institution fell under the provisions of Title IX.

Hillsdale decided to refuse all student loans and find money elsewhere to help its needy undergraduates. In 1992 alone, the college raised $6 million to cover student aid.

But the college has lost students, including minorities, to schools that make available government loans to applicants. Unlike other American colleges, Hillsdale posts no listing of the percentages of minority students who attend the school nor does it offer special financial packages to entice minorities to the campus.

Most everyone at the college believes Hillsdale has benefited from the struggle. It "had a clarifying effect," says Roche. Several faculty members echoed the assessment of Mickey Craig, director of Hillsdale's social studies program, who says, "What it all came down to was that we learned that we could say we are a traditional liberal arts college and feel very contented with that fact. …

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