College Costs Are Dollars Well Spent

A liberal arts education is worth every penny.

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Ronald Daniels is the president of Johns Hopkins University. Previously he was provost at the University of Pennsylvania.

What does it cost to go to one of America’s top private liberal arts colleges or universities for a year? $50,000? $20,000? Not a penny?

Answer: All of the above. It depends on what you can afford.

Not everyone can write a check for the full price of a year at a private college or university. Fortunately, we don’t ask everyone to do so.

At our best private institutions, if you can’t afford the sticker price, you won’t pay it. These colleges and universities are deeply committed to bringing the most promising young scholars to campus, no matter their families’ wealth or income. 

In fact, they are more committed than ever. Even in the face of the Great Recession, the nation’s top private research universities and liberal arts colleges are awarding larger financial aid packages to more students. Over the past five years, the median need-based aid grant at those schools has increased in size by a third; more than half of last year’s freshmen received aid.

At my own institution, for instance, undergraduate tuition is up 3.9 percent this fall in our schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering, but the financial aid budget is up 11.3 percent from a year ago to $61.1 million. We admitted this year’s freshman class on a need-blind basis; we will provide grant aid to 47 percent of freshmen this fall, up from 34 percent last year. The average grant is up $2,300 to more than $29,000.

At the top private colleges like Johns Hopkins, then, we open our doors not to students whose parents can cut the check, but to those who can do the work and benefit from the opportunities we offer.

[See U.S. News's list of top liberal arts colleges.]

What are those opportunities? At these top schools, you are taught by world-class historians, philosophers, and literary scholars how to analyze, evaluate, critique—in other words, how to think—and how to communicate your conclusions effectively. You learn about discoveries in the hottest fields—neuroscience, public health, astrophysics, economics—directly from the professors who make them.

You can, in fact, help make those discoveries. At Johns Hopkins, we send our students into research labs on campus and to field research opportunities around the world; they do important, original work, often published in scholarly journals. Our undergraduates—apprenticing with senior faculty members—have controlled a NASA satellite, documented the hazards of gold mining in Mongolia, investigated the impact of change on impoverished families in Alabama, and written software to direct robots in mapping their environment.

If working with the best faculty makes a difference, so too does working with the best students. Inside the classroom and out, your intellect—and your world view—is sharpened by exposure to the diverse ideas of fellow students from around the country and around the world, and by their reaction to your own ideas.


And we are committed to helping you put what you’ve learned to use, in the community and in the world. I would never argue that you can’t get an excellent education at a public college or university with a less expensive “sticker price” tuition. Of course you can! At Johns Hopkins, our faculty and graduate student ranks are full of very talented, very well-educated graduates of public institutions.

But I would argue this: You should not automatically eliminate private colleges and universities from your consideration any more than you should automatically eliminate public schools.

And you especially shouldn’t eliminate them on the basis of cost. If a private institution, even one with a daunting sticker price, is the right school for you, it’s more than likely that the aid is there to make it possible for you to enroll.

Is it worth it? Don’t take my word for it. Ask a student at a private college or university. Ask our alumni. I’ll bet they’ll tell you the same thing they tell us: Yes.

Read why the money spent on a liberal arts education is not worth it, by Andrew Hacker, who teaches political science at Queens College and is coauthor, with Claudia Dreifus, of the book Higher Education?