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…

Comments

  1. #1 The Phytophactor
    June 25, 2010

    Since a number of public undergraduate universities offer very much the same educational amenities at much reduced, but not as much lower as they used to be, it does become a question of where is the added benefit. It’s interesting to compare my own blue-collar, state school background and experiences with those of colleagues who when to “elite” schools. They did have more opportunities to do things that I couldn’t have afforded anyways.

  2. #2 Michael Nielsen
    June 25, 2010

    They’re also paying for brand. In some cases – Harvard comes to mind – this is likely by far the largest thing they’re paying for.

  3. #3 CCPhysicist
    June 25, 2010

    It actually is possible to get that kind of faculty contact at a state-funded research university, but those kinds of specialized “internal” residential or honors colleges are rare and must be funded by short-changing the sheep in some other program and/or targeted alumni fund raising. AFAIK these are rare for business majors, so that is one area where a SLAC education must have true added value.

    The direct contacts to fellow alumni exist in this other model, but not the branding … so you are very unlikely to know that someone from that university came from that special sub-unit, with all that implies.

    But there is a related uncomfortable set of questions: Are all of the faculty active in research? If you want faculty that prefer a SLAC to an R1, are you really competing in salary with the R1 (and the Harvard, Yale, Princeton R1 SLAC) world?

    I’ve also wondered many times about college economics at various institutions. My students this summer got a great deal, because their tuition barely covered my summer pay, let alone other expenses for the course. (It was subsidized by larger classes.) How does the total per-credit tuition of your students compare to your salary? Salary plus college support for (student) research? Is physics a source or sink for the college?

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    June 25, 2010

    They’re also paying for brand. In some cases – Harvard comes to mind – this is likely by far the largest thing they’re paying for.

    That’s pretty closely related to the “connections” thing, I think. It is slightly different, though (in that the name signals something even to people who didn’t go there), so maybe the third category ought to be expanded.

    But there is a related uncomfortable set of questions: Are all of the faculty active in research?

    Yes.
    There’s a pretty strong research requirement for tenure, and our undergraduate research program is one of the things we use to sell the college to prospective students, particularly in the sciences. Anybody who got tenure in the last ten or fifteen years has an active research program of some sort.

    If you want faculty that prefer a SLAC to an R1, are you really competing in salary with the R1 (and the Harvard, Yale, Princeton R1 SLAC) world?

    Salary-wise, we’re not competing with R1 schools. And we don’t have the same resources (obviously, we don’t have graduate students, and it’s a rare small college whose facilities can compare to a Harvard or Yale). This means that faculty have to be judicious about their choice of research projects, and we’re not really competing for people who want to run five different experiments each with two post-docs and a handful of grad students. But our faculty do do research, and publish papers, and present at national and international conferences.

    I’ve also wondered many times about college economics at various institutions. My students this summer got a great deal, because their tuition barely covered my summer pay, let alone other expenses for the course. (It was subsidized by larger classes.) How does the total per-credit tuition of your students compare to your salary? Salary plus college support for (student) research? Is physics a source or sink for the college?

    I don’t think I have access to the data I’d need to answer that. I’m not sure it would be appropriate to answer it even if I did– that’s a little too close to internal college politics, which I don’t blog about.

  5. #5 bcooper
    June 25, 2010

    They’re also paying for brand. In some cases – Harvard comes to mind – this is likely by far the largest thing they’re paying for.

    I would agree with this. This is also what makes me skeptical about the value of spending private school money on anything but elite private schools. Having seen both the liberal arts side and the research university side, I am unconvinced that the difference in education or credential quality is anywhere near enough to make up the cost difference. (At the very high end, reputation effects and an elite peer group can probably make a difference. The very best are quite likely to end up at someplace like Harvard, but I think the merely excellent are quite widely dispersed. )

    My undergrad advisor commented that he had a relative who studied education, and that that person maintained that a major reason many people went to college was to find a spouse. At the time, my advisor and I laughed about this, but I think it’s probably a lot closer to the truth than I would have guessed. I think a lot of the reason that there are many expensive private schools is because being expensive is inherently part of the brand. They seem classier than State U.

    I’m no expert on the subject, but I find higher education in America very troubling. Requiring college degrees as a fairly artificial barrier to entry to many mundane entry-level positions is already pretty bad. Combine that with an arms-race mentality to attract the best students possible (as that seems to be the easiest and best way to improve a college brand) and it’s unsurprising that you have a situation where real costs climb like mad.

  6. #6 not bitter
    June 25, 2010

    At Caltech I got the impression that an emphasis on all faculty doing research seriously hurts undergraduate education. Because we don’t hire anyone for their teaching skills, many required courses are taught by professors who can’t be bothered to speak comprehensibly, write legibly on the board, or proofread the problem sets they assign. The quality of teaching is often well below what would be considered acceptable in high school. What’s good for the brand is often directly bad for the student.

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