Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

Technology and the Value of Community*

Student with laptop in classroomLike most truly revolutionary changes, technology is changing the world and the institutions in it. This is at least as true in higher education as in any other part of society.

Probably the most noted change is the ability of technology to affect how and where students learn. Until very recently, the history of higher education has been the movement toward a more community based educational experience. The earliest European universities began as collections of scholars who settled in one geographic location for the efficiencies this provided students to gather for lectures and tutorials. Learning in community was begun.

As economies grew and the need for higher education expanded, universities became more centralized. They also began concerning themselves with their students’ needs beyond pure academics. Dormitories were built, cafeterias began offering meals, extra-curricular activities were added to campus life. Learning AND living in community became a more efficient way to educate great numbers of students.

In recent years, technology has provided a way of educating that does not require either living or learning in community. Distance learning, most commonly in the form of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), allows for the possibility of educational content to be delivered across great distances and asynchronously to individual learners. A good internet connection, in theory, can replace some – if not all – of the bricks and mortar campus experience. This technological reality has led some to speculate that soon the online world may literally cause the disintegration of traditional universities. Students will be able to pick the time, place and pace of their post-secondary education.

As distance learning has grown and developed, most of the debate about its merits versus traditional models have focused on economics and pedagogy. To me, however, there is an important and under-appreciated strength of traditional residential education that, ironically, is enhanced by the very forces that have given rise to distance learning. The technological revolution which has made MOOCs possible has also brought about changes in our lives and social interactions, especially among young people, that make continuing to learn and live in community more important than ever.

Students in control roomAs an educator, I see three developments that convince me that having our students live and learn together is of growing importance.

First, the social interactions of people, especially the young, are increasingly mediated by technology, leading to fewer personal interactions. We see children and young adults in virtually every public setting, walking or sitting side by side while texting, or in groups pulling out their phones every few minutes to check their social media accounts. We see it in college students gaming in their dorm rooms and bringing their media to classes. Simple conversations are often interrupted by the stream of information that flows from technology.

Second, technology allows and encourages young people with similar interests, social concerns, politics and worldviews to connect. Some of this ability to reach beyond one’s local geography is surely good—electronic pen pals around a shared passion. Yet it can also be provincial and narrowing. Technology allows all of us to be in self-reinforcing echo chambers, where we hear our own ideas and views repeated and reinforced, rather than tested and challenged, a process that is especially important as young people are developing their moral foundations. We begin to see those outside this circle, however defined, as “the other” and alien. We start to emphasize our differences rather than what we share as humans.

Third, there is growing evidence that millennials (loosely 23-38 year olds) and Generation Zs (loosely early teens to 23) are experiencing more isolation, loneliness and depression than older generations. The exact causes need further study, but Blue Cross Blue Shield researchers have found that depression diagnoses are growing rapidly among teens and millennials. A recent widely reported survey by Cigna found that young people were the loneliest among all the groups surveyed.

Graduates taking selfieAll these issues certainly need more research and those of us older than Generation Z and the millennials are hardly exempt from these concerns, but for educators, the focus is naturally on the experiences of recent graduates, current and future students.

I believe that the current model of undergraduate education which emphasizes learning and living in community (think institutions like Saint John’s, the College of Saint Benedict and St. Cloud State University), though developed for other reasons, offers some hope for those concerned with the social interactions and mental health of young people.

To end on a hopeful note, the Cigna survey reported that, “People who engage in frequent, meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face.”

Social beings benefit from social interactions and a residential university experience can provide a community to foster those interactions—in and outside of the classroom. It is not, as they say, rocket science.

*Published in the St. Cloud Times “To a Higher Degree” column on June 24, 2018

Loneliness, Men and Saint John’s

Loneliness seems to be in the news a lot recently, in both expected and unexpected places.

Cigna, the international insurance company, did a recent study that evaluated loneliness among Americans. National Public Radio reported on the study, noting that “Americans Are A Lonely Lot, and Young People Bear the Heaviest Burden.”  Business Insider also reported on the research, emphasizing how widespread the problem is: “Loneliness may be a greater public health hazard than obesity — and experts say it has hit epidemic levels in the US.”

Using sociological data from interviews with women who work closely with men, Men’s Health magazine specifically explored men’s mental health and found, according to one interviewee, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing [this] work, it’s that many men are extraordinarily lonely.”

The NPR podcast, The Hidden Brain , also explored loneliness among men using interviews and data from the ongoing eight decade long Harvard Study of Adult Development.  The podcast, suggesting at least one cause of male loneliness, was titled, “Guys, We Have a Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men.”

The reports on the Cigna study both made the link between emotional health and physical health.  The NPR story noted this connection and how it can affect the young:

Loneliness has health consequences. “There’s a blurred line between mental and physical health,” says [Cigna CEO David] Cordani. “Oftentimes, medical symptoms present themselves and they’re correlated with mental, lifestyle, behavioral issues like loneliness.”

Several studies in recent years, including ones by [BYU researcher Julianne] Holt-Lunstad, have documented the public health effect of loneliness. It has been linked with a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. It has been shown to influence our genes and our immune systems, and even recovery from breast cancer.

And there is growing evidence that loneliness can kill. “We have robust evidence that it increases risk for premature mortality,” says Holt-Lunstad. Studies have found that it is a predictor of premature death, not just for the elderly, but even more so for younger people.

The latest survey also found something surprising about loneliness in the younger generation. “Our survey found that actually the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations,” says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna.

. . . .

“Too often people think that this [problem] is specific to older adults,” says Holt-Lunstad. “This report helps with the recognition that this can affect those at younger ages.”

Both of the latter two media sources also went beyond loneliness and linked men’s mental health to their physical health.  The Men’s Health article noted:

Our country is steeped in a quiet mental health crisis: the suicide rate for men is much higher than it is for women, having risen nearly 50% between 1999 and 2010, and men tend not to seek help for depression, due to the cultural stigma associated with mental illness.

In her book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendship and the Crisis of Connection, Harvard researcher Niobe Way (not part of the Harvard study) attributes this in part to the absence of an emotional support system for men. Before becoming adults, Way theorizes, young men have extraordinarily intimate friendships with each other; but as they grow older, they are pressured into giving up these close ties and becoming stoic and independent, leaving them totally isolated and unable to speak with anyone about their struggles.

The Hidden Brain podcast quotes Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard Development study:

[The Harvard Study has found] very strong connections [between mental health and physical health]. That was one of the surprising things that began to emerge in our data in the ’80s. We found that people who had warmer, closer connections lived longer, developed the diseases of middle age, those chronic diseases, less soon and had better health longer on average than people who didn’t have warm, close relationships.

These data on loneliness and its health effects among men and the young are important and worrying on their own, but I was also thinking about these issues when I had two recent encounters with Johnnie alums that were at odds with this conventional wisdom about men.

The first was with a group of alums from the 1960s, all past their 50th reunion. They had come together to celebrate a classmate and friend, not at a funeral, which might be the usual reason for gathering at their age, but at a small town celebration honoring this friend.  They came from some distance to be in his hometown, and they honored him for a life of successes and service. At the same time, they celebrated their almost 60 years of connection to each other that started at Saint John’s.  Even as their personal and professional lives had taken them far and wide and each had their own strong families, there is a tie that had remained important for them across both time and distance.

The second story was of a group of guys in their 40s who had all lived on 3rd Tommie short as freshmen.  They are in the midst of their own time consuming professional successes—literally from coast to coast.  They are also in the prime of child rearing years, with more activities and scheduling to contend with than any of them had ever experienced as kids.  Yet they are staying in touch, making a point to get together regularly, with supportive and loving spouses who encourage this little “cult of Saint John’s.”

One of this band had a life threatening health scare a couple years ago.  It was shocking for the young healthy man who had been an exceptional athlete, and it was an emotional jolt to his friends.  Each of his friends sprang into action—supporting him and his family individually and as a group.  The support has continued over the years and shows no sign of abating as the Johnnie’s health continues to be a challenge.  One of the group described how this event had made their bond even stronger and every one of these Johnnies fully expects the group to be part of his life until they shuffle off this mortal coil.

Those are but two examples of exceptional, yet completely typical, Saint John’s friendships.

The Saint John’s network is rightly famous for the professional connections it provides to graduates, but this network, or maybe more aptly, this brotherhood, is important to Johnnies in other ways that are not as often remarked upon.  While I have no definitive empirical data to support this contention, my gut and experience tell me that the holistic experience at Saint John’s provides most Johnnies with deep emotional connections that often last a lifetime; connections that are fundamentally different than those developed at most other colleges and universities.  I have had the rare opportunity and gift to see these friendships in my role as President, and I have lived them with freshman friends from 3rd Mary (and a Tommie interloper!) over 40 years.

As I have reflected on Johnnie friendships and talked with others about their experiences, I think there are at least three unique aspects of the SJU experience that contribute to these lifelong bonds.

  1. In the woods.  Collegeville is beautifully isolated.  We have woods, prairies, lakes and each other.  We do not have the distractions of a big urban area, or a university like the “U” nearby or the easy temptation to head home for the weekend.  We fully expect to live a residential experience on campus and know that our friends and classmates want that same kind of experience.  From the first weeks of freshman year, we are making a literal commitment to be there for each other, and that provides the basis for building long and strong relationships.
  2. All men.  Of course we love the Bennies and most would not have chosen SJU without knowing they would be in our classes and part of our social lives, yet for most Johnnies, often within the first year, we also come to appreciate our single sex campus and dorms.  We do not need to put on airs or show off for the women who live down the hall or upstairs.  At its best, we live in a fraternity—“the state or feeling of friendship and mutual support within a group.”  It is a brotherhood that provides the rare opportunity to develop deep emotional and spiritual ties.
  3. The monks.  Johnnies also have rare role models of male friendship living just down the hall or upstairs.  We have faculty residents, most of whom are monks who have made an exceptional life choice to commit to a community of men for spiritual and emotional reasons.  We observe them up close and at a distance as they enjoy the joys of deep male commitment to their community and to this place.  Observing it becomes both completely normal and powerfully affecting.

Each individual Johnnie friendship and every tight SJU group will have their own unique history and dynamic, but I think in each story there is likely there are elements of the physical place, our single sex setting and the Monastic community that are foundational to these relationships.

Aruba Johnnies jump into poolThe impact of Saint John’s on our emotional lives starts in Collegeville as young men grow into adulthood.  A preternaturally wise and thoughtful 2018 grad put it this way: “I think men in our society often have a problem socializing and getting past the issues of masculinity and connecting emotionally with other males.  I think Saint John’s is this weird, strange, unique place in the middle of nowhere where you can connect emotionally with other males, where you can develop emotional maturity, and you can become the best version of yourself.  In the middle of nowhere, in the woods, you can form these friendships that last a lifetime, and you can become a true version of yourself, you don’t have to put on a face, you can be friends with people and experience life in a very real way.  Saint John’s has transformed my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined.”

Ideally, as graduates emotional lives grow and develop, those Saint John’s friendship remain central, both in the day-to-day of life and at times of challenge or crisis.  Johnnies see each other through, to the very end of life.

In exploring the emotional lives of men as they grow and age, the Harvard study asks participants a surprisingly simple question, “If you were alone, who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid?”

I believe that for very many Johnnies, the answer would certainly be, “Another Johnnie.”

By |June 7th, 2018|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments

Financial Aid Confusion

Sexton Commons, Saint John's University

Among the complexities of higher education, the private college financial aid model is often the least understood, as it varies among schools, and many schools, like Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, offer both need-based and merit-based aid.

Below is a column written to try and clarify some of these issues, written in response to an earlier opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that was critical of the Minnesota private colleges for their financial aid policies.

Counterpoint: Yes, ‘The Price is Right’ for higher education – and it’s not at all unfair*

For typical Minnesota private colleges like Saint John’s, there’s no “cross subsidization” among students. Still, it’s a tough balancing act.

The economics of higher education are quite complicated. College leaders struggle with these issues every day, including by trying to make them understandable to students and families. “Are you the next contestant on ‘The Price is Right?’ ” touched on these important and complicated issues but in ways that were ultimately misleading.

The article focused on private, nonprofit schools in Minnesota. As an economist by training and president of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, an institution typical of hundreds of small, private, liberal arts colleges around the country, I hope to bring some clarity to this confusing topic.

At Saint John’s, we are selective, but not elite. Our students generally come from the upper quarter academically of their high school classes. We have 1,700 students and a very typical campus with dormitories, classrooms, laboratories, athletic facilities, administrative buildings and, atypically, a world-famous church set amid the lakes, forests and prairie of central Minnesota.
We are, alas, not particularly rich; nor are we especially poor. Our endowment is in the middle of the pack among small, private, liberal arts schools.

At one level, our economic story is very simple. Our revenues come from tuition, alumni gifts and endowment income. Our economic costs are, foremost, compensation for faculty and staff; annual operating costs such as energy, books, journals, copying, etc.; and capital expenses including the costs associated with buildings, land, equipment and technology.

Comparing revenues and costs results in an important, possibly surprising, and little understood fact about our economic model. If every single one of our Johnnies paid our full tuition of $43,000 a year, which almost none do, we would still not have enough revenue to cover the full cost of providing our students the exceptional education they receive.

The economic reality is that every one of our students receives a subsidy, regardless of what they pay. That subsidy comes from Saint John’s alumni and friends, past and present. It does not, as some believe, come from higher-paying classmates.

At Saint John’s, as is true of virtually every higher education institution I know, there is no “cross subsidization” between students. Every additional dollar necessary to cover the true cost of the students’ education beyond the sticker price comes from nonstudents: either from many decades of investment in our campus facilities and endowment or annual fund gifts in the current year or through future fundraising that will cover wear and tear on facilities used by current students.

Quadrangle Building, Saint John's UniversityThis fact may be hard to believe, but the compensation of highly educated faculty and staff and the capital embodied in extremely expensive and high-tech buildings that makes the American model of higher education so exceptional also explains the high per-student cost of America’s best-in-the-world education.

The second part of the economic model for schools like Saint John’s is much harder to navigate and understand. The reality is, of course, that most of our students cannot pay our full tuition without financial aid. Then the question becomes how to use our limited financial-aid resources and discounts to further subsidize the tuition costs for our students.

There are two basic choices. If the school is what might be called an elite institution, enjoying excess demand for the limited number of seats in its entering class, it is very likely to provide only need-based financial aid. Families submit financial-aid forms and then, using federal government formulas, an expected family contribution is calculated. Those students whose families have the economic resources to pay the full sticker price are asked to do so and those families who demonstrate financial need in order to cover tuition receive financial-aid packages commensurate with their need. These elite schools are very limited in number but include the usual suspects such as Harvard and Stanford.

The second financial aid model is the one Saint John’s and the vast majority of private schools use. When we package financial aid for each of our students, we consider both financial need, as described above, and student merit, which is based on the applicant’s academic record.

Why would we choose to use some of our precious financial-aid dollars and limited discounts to reward students from well-off families who could pay our sticker price? Because, for non-elite institutions like Saint John’s, it is valuable to all of our students to maintain a certain academic standard. By attracting a stronger overall academic class through the use of merit aid, the educational experience for all of our students is enhanced.

This is what economists refer to as a positive externality. Stronger students will raise the overall academic level for their peers and improve the performance of the whole cohort.

It is certainly true that every dollar we spend on merit aid is a dollar we cannot spend on need-based aid, so there is most definitely a trade-off. A further complexity is that many students get both kinds of aid.

Because of this trade-off, one can debate the equity of a financial-aid system that includes both need-based and merit-based aid. Yet for non-elite schools — like the vast majority of Minnesota private colleges — that don’t have multiple equally qualified applicants vying for every spot in an entering class, it is certainly a defensible choice to offer somewhat less need-based financial aid in exchange for the benefits to all students of attracting a stronger overall academic class.

This difficult balancing act, however, does not result in a subsidy from financially needy students to academically strong students — neither of those students pays the full cost of their education, as described above, but the amount of subsidy each individual student receives does depend on how a school chooses to allocate need-based and merit-based financial-aid dollars, both of which discount the cost of tuition.

It would be great if every school had the financial resources and applicant pool that elite schools have, but that, of course, is why they are elite.

At Saint John’s, as a selective but not elite school, we work hard every day to provide an exceptional and affordable education for students from a full range of economic circumstances, subject to our resource constraints. We also strive to honestly educate students and families about the complex economics of higher education that are understandably confusing.

I can also say with complete confidence from having worked with and competed with my Minnesota private college peers for years, every Minnesota private, nonprofit college does the same.

*Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on May 21, 2018