Why Hillsdale Stands Alone
Some high impact successes never get replicated
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Under President Larry Arnn, Hillsdale College has gone from strength to strength. Once a liberal arts college with a primarily regional or even in-state draw, Hillsdale is now a national destination, especially for conservative students. Its acceptance rate is now down to 21%, showing how exclusive the school has become.
Hillsdale does not accept federal funding, and thus is exempt from many government rules. It has doubled down on its distinctives in terms of traditional liberal arts education, the American political tradition, etc. Hillsdale is also a standout in that it historically never discriminated on race.
But Hillsdale’s reach extends far beyond campus. They have a lot of continuing education resources, many of which are free. They have a charter school network. They publish a print newsletter called Imprimis that reaches millions of people.
The Hillsdale message has deeply resonated with a lot of people. Students are applying. Donations are pouring in. (Arnn has been a fundraising juggernaut). I attended a Hillsdale fundraising event here in Carmel that was extremely well patronized. I might have thought I was at the local Indiana University alumni association chapter meeting or something there were so many people.
The immediate question arises: if Hillsdale has been so successful, why haven’t other colleges replicated their model?
Notwithstanding Ron DeSantis’ desire to remake New College of Florida as the “Hillsdale of the South,” it’s remarkable how few colleges have tried it. Not even Grove City College, which also does not take federal funds and which was the inspiration for Hillsdale to forgo them, has tried the same approach.
Hillsdale is an example of the “N=1” problem. Some things are so unique that they intimidate imitators. They also may not easily be imitated. They are sui generis.
The obvious example here is New York City. It’s the greatest in the world. But while there are things you can learn from it, no place else can become it - or anything like it.
With Hillsdale, the model seems more replicable. But realistically, how much donor money is there around the country to fund a bunch more Hillsdales? How many other leaders are there like Larry Arnn available to pull it off? And how many other schools never historically discriminated on race, and thus are less susceptible to moral pressures on the issue?
Replicating Hillsdale certainly wouldn’t be easy, though I think a school like Grove City would have a chance, because it’s a Christian institution in a way that Hillsdale is not. But we’re in no danger of creating a network of Hillsdale-like schools out there at the moment.
Doug Wilson and the community around Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho is another example of an N=1 situation. I suspect that many people who have visited there and seen their religious institutions, businesses, and real estate holdings have thought to themselves, “Wow - you could do that in XYZ town by me.”
In reality, no one else has done it, though there are some Catholic stronghold type towns that are somewhat similar. Similar to the case with Hillsdale and Larry Arnn, there simply aren’t many other people out there like Doug Wilson, who can attract a national following, including thousands of people who are willing to move across the country to be part of what he’s building. There aren’t a lot of other places that are going to be able to create a big media company like Canon Press. And even in Moscow, that community took 40+ years to come to fruition.
Creating something like Moscow would appear to be very difficult to do.
I’ve previously written about a small urban success story that’s like this, the city of Columbus, Indiana, about 45 minutes south of Indianapolis. I noted in the Atlantic that it was the Rust Belt city that never rusted. The town’s leading citizen, J. Irwin Miller, was the 4th generation scion of the town’s most prominent family, which owned the local bank and controlled the major industrial company Cummins Engine. Miller heavily invested in his own town, including paying for the architecture fees for a world-famous collection of modern buildings.
Columbus today is prosperous and growing, unlike most small Midwest industrial cities. But nobody has even tried to replicate it. It’s easy to see why: there aren’t any more WASP elites like Miller around who could plausibly lead such a thing.
It’s worth pondering which examples suffer from this N=1 problem, and which represent models that can be replicated and scaled.
It’s not obvious to me what the distinction is, but many of the models above all relied on a singular leader like Arnn, Wilson, or Miller.
On the other hand, Carmel, Indiana where I live had a model created by a figure like that, but it has been extensively copied. Many regional suburbs are imitating Carmel while studiously avoiding the “C word.”
There would be huge value in taking some of these examples and figuring out how to make them replicable. In the meantime, too many interesting and high-quality developments end up being singular outliers that never get successfully deployed elsewhere.
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