Continuing with the uncomfortable questions, H asks a good one:
Union is one of the most expensive colleges in the country. What are students getting for their money? How does Union justify the increase in price over other schools with comparable academics and facilities?
See, now that’s an uncomfortable question, especially on an institutional level.
Stripped down to the most basic level, and stated as bluntly as possible, students at an elite private liberal arts college are paying for three things: faculty/facilities, individual attention, and connections.
Faculty and facilities are the most obvious expense. We have classrooms, teaching and research labs, and a first-rate library, and those things are expensive. Our faculty are nearly all active and distinguished scholars in their respective fields of research, and need to be compensated appropriately. Maintaining the infrastructure, both physical and intellectual, for an elite college costs money, and is paid for in large part from tuition.
The second item, individual attention, is what distinguishes an elite liberal arts college from a research university. The high tuition for private colleges comes with an expectation that students will get a level of attention that is not possible at larger institutions. Classes are taught by regular faculty, not graduate students, classes tend to be smaller, and students have more opportunities to interact closely with faculty and get involved in undergraduate research. Those are essential components of an elite college education, and again, those are expensive to provide.
The third and final item, connections, is the least obvious but in some ways the most useful. A diploma from an elite private college is a sort of class marker, and gives you connections that can come in handy– you know people who will know people, in a manner of speaking.
The usefulness of these connections depends a lot on your future career path– they’re a huge help in certain sorts of business, where investment firms will go out of their way to recruit students from specific schools, but somewhat less helpful in, say, academic science. They do make a difference, though– a diploma from one of these schools will get a second look from a lot of people who went there, and can be an “in” with people who have money to back entrepreneurial projects and that sort of thing.
So, that’s what students are getting for their money. Is it worth the cost? That’s something for individual students to decide. It depends on a lot of factors, from how much you will actually have to pay– most elite schools have financial aid packages that greatly reduce the real cost for many students– to what you plan to do with your life after college.
I’m an elite liberal arts college graduate myself– I went to Williams, as I may have mentioned once or twice– so I’m obviously biased, but I wouldn’t trade my college experience for anything. Other people, including a good number of liberal arts college alumni, may feel otherwise.
As for extra expense, I’m not up on the current numbers, but I know Union has a state policy of trying to keep tuition and fees at or near the median of the group of thirty-odd colleges that we compare ourselves to. That’s obviously a group with a much higher tuition than the mean for all colleges, but the official, slightly smug, response is that those are the schools whose academics and facilities are really comparable to ours. Cheaper places aren’t really comparable, you see…