I know what you’re thinking: a media war? Really?
But yes. Really. Especially in the wake of the housing bubble burst, especially in the middle of a recession, especially as Ron Paul spouts off about Big Government subsidizing education and driving costs up, the news stories about higher education are alarmist and overwhelmingly negative. Reuters asks, “Is College Worth it?” MSN takes it a step further with “Is a College Degree Worthless?” U.S. News says that “College Tuition Growth Rate Is Biggest Bubble of Them All.” The message is clear: College tuition is rising, it is rising too quickly, and the degree ultimately does not justify the spending.
The articles follow a typical pattern: talk about the rising cost in tuition, speculate about blame, suggest that students go to a 2-year college or an in-state public university to offset cost. I’m not going to disagree with any of that: tuition costs are rising at a higher rate than inflation (the numbers are somewhat skewed because of funding cuts for public universities, and the increase in for-profit schools, and the higher demand for college), and there are other options available to keep costs low. What I am going to argue is that there is value in a residential liberal arts education that goes beyond what most of these articles discuss.
First: Money. Residential liberal arts educations cost an average of $38,590 from 2011-2012, while a 2-year public college tuition is a little under $10,370, and a public 4-year averages $17,130. $40,000 per year for college seems outlandish, and the sticker shock keeps many away. However, private colleges tend to have higher endowments and are more able to give students financial aid; the actual cost is more like $23,060 for a private school, $11,380 for a public, 4-year university, and $6600 for a 2-year college.
Here’s another thing to consider: at your average private college, 48.4% of students will graduate in 4 years. At your average public college, that number is 27.6%. An American Council on Education study from 2001 showed an average of 4.8 years for public university students, and 4.3 years for private university students. The highest cost colleges are much more likely to get people through the program in 4 years, which brings the overall cost down.
Another aspect that is not often considered when looking at tuition is the cost of life. As an undergraduate in a private, residential school, I took out loans for tuition but my on-campus job covered any other expenses. I did not go out to bars, or have to pay for parking, or use public transportation. My college was a world in and of itself, with campus parties and a comprehensive community within walking distance. Even when I lived “off-campus,” I was completely immersed in the world that was my college. In graduate school, at a public university, the feel was quite different. My tuition was covered, but I ended up taking out loans for life. Parking was hundreds of dollars per year, and the on-campus opportunities did not cover my social needs. This was probably exaggerated because of my own circumstances, but at the same time, residential programs are more comprehensive in nature; the upfront cost is high, but there is a lot of bang for that buck.
According to the study, education levels had more effect on earnings over a 40-year span in the workforce than any other demographic factor such as race or gender. The estimated impact on annual earnings between a person with a professional degree versus one without a high school diploma was about $72,000 a year.
But how does this compare between the more costly residential liberal arts education and something more specialized? It is hard to put a number on the economic benefit, because liberal arts students pursue a wide variety of careers. However, from the start, it is clear that a specialized field has a better economic benefit. These benefits tend to even out over time, although not completely.
It isn’t as cut-and-dry as it seems. From the Annapolis Group:
Though small in number when compared to America’s large public universities, liberal arts college graduates are represented disproportionately among leaders in the arts, education, science and medicine, public service and business. A 1998 study found that even though only 3 percent of American college graduates were educated at a residential liberal arts college, alumni of these colleges accounted for:
- 8 percent of Forbes magazine’s listing of the nation’s wealthiest CEOs in 1998
- 8 percent of former Peace Corps volunteers
- 19 percent of U.S. presidents
- 23 percent of Pulitzer Prize winners in drama, 19 percent of the winners in history, 18 percent in poetry, 8 percent in biography, and 6 percent in fiction from 1960 to 1998
- 9 percent of all Fulbright scholarship recipients and 24 percent of all Mellon fellowships in the humanities
- 20 percent of Phi Beta Kappa inductions made between 1995 and 1997
The average salary of the average graduate of a residential liberal arts school is lower than your average salary of a graduate of a more career-focused school; the fact remains, though, that residential liberal arts colleges prepare their students in a different way than a research university, and there are economic benefits to this preparation.
Which brings me to my third, and what I consider to be the most important point: Education. And I don’t mean “quality of instruction,” I mean education. The difference between a 4-year, residential liberal arts college and a big research university is that a small liberal arts college strives to give depth of knowledge in a specialty, as well as breadth of knowledge about the world. A liberal arts education is not career training – it is life training. The focus of a liberal arts education is on critical thinking, and expanding the mind. A successful graduate of a liberal arts program will be at the beginning of a life of learning.
The Annapolis Group commissioned a study by the higher education consulting firm Hardwick Day. The study was based on 2700 phone interviews and looked at the lasting effects of college.
From the Annapolis Group website:
Among the study’s career-related findings:
- Seventy-six percent of liberal arts college graduates rated their college experience highly for preparing them for their first job, compared to 66 percent who attended public flagship universities;
- Eighty-nine percent of liberal arts college graduates reported finding a mentor while in college, compared to 66 percent for public flagship universities;
- Sixty percent of liberal arts college graduates said they felt “better prepared” for life after college than students who attended other colleges, compared to 34 percent who attended public flagship universities.
- Liberal arts college graduates are more likely to graduate in four years or fewer, giving them a head start on their careers.
Among other key findings in this year’s survey:
- 77 percent of liberal arts college graduates rated their overall undergraduate experience as “excellent,” compared to 53 percent for graduates of flagship public universities;
- 79 percent of liberal arts college graduates report benefiting “very much” from high-quality teaching-oriented faculty, compared to 63 percent for private universities and 40 percent for alumni of flagship public universities;
- 88 percent of liberal arts graduates said there was a sense of community among students, compared to 79 percent for private universities and 63 percent for public flagship universities.