Cost vs. Value

The Case for Private Higher Education
Christopher Hooker-Haring '72, P'09, P'10

Several years ago, an Associated Press article reported on a Congressional investigation of public universities and concluded that they are charging more (141 percent more in the period from 1980 to 1990 – a cost growth rate that has continued into the 21st Century!) while offering fewer courses, larger sections and more and more teaching done by graduate assistants. The same study documented a single political science class at the University of Illinois that had 1,156 students in it. It documented faculty teaching loads at public universities that have fallen from 15 hours per semester to as low as six hours in order to allow more time for research. It found that a walkout by teaching assistants on the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1989 caused cancellation of nearly 75 percent of all classes.

All of this raised disturbing questions that we in higher ed continue to ask about the quality of education being delivered to undergraduate students in our nation’s public campuses. Yet there is an alternative – America’s small private liberal arts colleges.

At a time when America worries about the ability of its students to write clearly and effectively, to evaluate data and draw appropriate conclusions, to create, discover and invent, one would think that the highly personalized, highly participatory learning opportunities offered by our nation’s private colleges would be among our most prized national resources. Instead, the majority of the focus in any discussion of higher education has been shifted to cost, almost to the exclusion of any consideration of the value of one type of experience versus another.

Recent polls showed that 70 percent of parents and 65 percent of students said making college affordable was an important issue for them in the 2008 presidential election. But far too many families are resigning themselves to huge classes taught by graduate assistants, to long waits for access to professors, to pitiful graduation rates and, generally speaking, to a “factory” approach to undergraduate education at large state universities purely on the basis of cost. They assume that they will not qualify for financial aid at a private college without ever investigating that possibility in depth. They assume, sadly, that college is simply a credential-garnering process – the degree at the end of the line, not the personal growth and chance for exploration along the way, is viewed as what’s important.

Those assumptions, fueled by a one-sided consideration of the subject in the media, lead to missed opportunities, to a declining quality of undergraduate education and ultimately to a less competitive population and workforce for our country. At a time when the world has become a brutally competitive place, and economists tell us our children face a less certain economic future than their parents did, those assumptions are increasingly dangerous.

Private higher education is expensive, no doubt about it. While private colleges are struggling mightily to contain costs, higher education is a highly labor-intensive and capital-intensive enterprise. It simply costs more to educate students 18 or so at a time, in classes taught by an experienced Ph.D., than it does to sit them in lecture halls of 500 or more with graduate students doing a significant share of the teaching. But there is growing research to suggest that the best learning takes place in the smaller, more highly personalized environment, where feedback is frequent and individualized, and the educational experience has a human face.

What about the return on investment of time and money? For starters, a good private college graduates 75 to 85 percent of those who enter as freshmen. Contrast that to graduation rates of 35 to 50 percent at many large state universities.

But beyond higher graduation rates, small private colleges also offer advantages in terms of the educational experience they deliver to students. The classes at private colleges tend to be smaller – and many are taught seminar style rather than lecture-for-recall. The student-faculty ratios allow for maximum interaction with professors, and for true faculty mentorship. And the primary focus is on teaching undergraduates, not on research or graduate education.

More than ever, the question for job seekers in this economy is, who is best prepared to give real value back to the hiring organization? Who has been trained to think critically, to ask the right questions and seek creative answers, to work hard, communicate effectively and adapt to changing conditions quickly? These characteristics, which are especially fostered by the personalized private college experience, not only help in gaining an initial job, but also help determine who will be the “high fliers” within a given organization. These same characteristics help explain why strong private colleges send such a disproportionately large percentage of their graduates on to the nation’s medical schools, law schools and other competitive graduate programs.

Finally, while the sticker price at state schools can be attractive, there are often “hidden costs” associated with attending state-supported institutions. More and more students enrolled at large state universities are taking five or six years to graduate – if they graduate at all – at least in part because they can’t get the courses needed to complete a major or meet graduation requirements in a four-year time frame. Add the cost of an additional year or two of schooling to the lost income that results from deferring the start of a career and the cost edge enjoyed by state schools begins to evaporate.

A college experience – if it’s the right college experience – is something that stays with you for life. It can enhance earning tremendously, as well as contribute to a life more open to possibilities and more richly rewarding than it would otherwise be.

That’s worth something. In fact, it’s worth a lot.

My hope is that we can broaden the conversation about higher education to consider not only immediate cost concerns but also what is in the long term best interest of our students and our country. As that conversation expands and we examine our personal and national values with regard to higher education, we may well find that not only is the “high cost” of a private college education affordable after all, but also that the experience, and the lifetime of return on that experience, is absolutely worth it.

Christopher Hooker-Haring ’72, P’09, P’10 is Dean of Admission & Financial Aid at Muhlenberg College. Versions of this piece have run in the AP and L.A. Times wire services.