All photos/art by Alexander Nesbitt
A massive set of iron gates guards the western flank of the College Green at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The Van Wickle Gates, ornately decorated with the university seal and gilded lions, anchored by stone and brick pillars, remain closed for virtually the entire year. Each fall, though, by tradition, the center gates swing inward to welcome the incoming freshmen to the university.
Variations on this rite of passage mark the season across New England’s 260 colleges and universities. At Brown — the third-oldest of them — an air of history surrounds the ritual. Against a backdrop of stately buildings and formal grounds, a black-capped guard unlocks the gates; a bagpiper plays nearby.
In truth, the feeling of history has moved to the edges of the ceremony these days. Last year the scene bordered on chaos as administrators yelled and pointed and tried to corral some 1,500 freshmen into some kind of order before funneling them through the bottleneck. The kids were dressed like 2008, in T-shirts and low-riding jeans and, thanks to a lingering heat wave that made the season more summer than fall, flip-flops and spaghetti straps and shorts. Many of them whooped and cheered as they pushed through, and held up iPhones to capture the moment. A throng of parents and well-wishers were crowded inside, taking pictures and video from there, and the rush of noise and bodies streamed past for close to 40 minutes.
Later, seated in folding chairs beneath leafy shade trees, the students were welcomed by university president Ruth Simmons, who told them, “Your march through those gates and your presence on this historic green renew our enthusiasm for the 244-year-old mission of this university.”
Those students were extraordinarily fortunate to be sitting there. Although the college population in New England has climbed above 887,000 students, the competition to get into the region’s most selective schools has become brutal. Increasingly anxious and ambitious parents and a peaking number of high-school-aged children of baby boomers have combined to send applications soaring at many schools. More than 19,000 students from across the country applied for the chance to be in that class of 1,500 freshmen at Brown, even with tuition, fees, and room and board costing more than $47,000 a year. The students who were let in through the gates had reason to whoop and cheer.
These trends hit close to home everywhere. A niece of mine — straight As, president of her senior class — was wait-listed at her top choice. We thought our baby-sitter, Ian, had a strong chance at Emerson College’s elite theater program, although we worried he might not be able to afford to go. He didn’t get in. But he did get into Tufts, and his parents, after much soul-searching, made the difficult decision to help send him there rather than to the less expensive state schools that had accepted him.
Hundreds of other students haven’t been so lucky. Just this week I talked with a high school principal whose heart is breaking over the choices many of her brightest students are making, just because of money. The average cost of a year at a New England state university has passed $20,000; at a private one it’s more than twice that. Both are far higher than the national averages. This past February, following other well-endowed Ivy League schools, and recognizing the burden and the implications of such high costs, Brown’s board of trustees voted to use university grants to fully cover tuition, fees, and room and board for students from families earning less than $60,000 a year. That’s a luxury only the wealthiest schools can afford.
The cool nights of fall have arrived now. The admission and rejection letters are dimming memories. The financial-aid packages have been worked out, and the checks have been written, at least for the first semester. In college towns everywhere, a fresh sense of purpose and energy enlivens the streets and sidewalks and library stacks. Young minds turn toward chemistry and Hemingway and homecoming.
A new generation of students has gotten in. At Brown, the Van Wickle Gates will open just one more time for them: in the spring, four years from now, by tradition, when they swing outward and let the new graduates out into the world.