Cost of Top Colleges Has Outpaced the Value

The astronomical price of a liberal arts college is far beyond its return.

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Andrew Hacker teaches political science at Queens College and is coauthor, with Claudia Dreifus, of the book Higher Education?

Let me be clear at the start: I strongly support a four-year liberal arts education. If I had my way, all of our 16 million undergraduates would major in fields like philosophy, history, and the sciences, rather than vocational programs. Pondering enduring ideas is a far better use of precious college years than fashion merchandising or sports management.

But $200,000 over a four-year span? That’s what tuition, fees, room, and board are costing at colleges like Ken­yon ($50,400), Reed ($51,850), and Bowdoin ($52,880). It is true that not everyone pays the full sticker figure. But then the posted prices don’t include travel, clothing, and nights out with friends. Even more crucial, most of what you’re paying isn’t for education. Let’s look at where the tuition and fees part of your check (about $40,000) is going.

Almost all college teams run a deficit. Even at the high-powered University of Southern California, the men’s basketball program loses $888,673 annually, while its golf team requires $33,961 per player. Bowdoin, with only 1,771 students, fields 37 money-losing squads, all with salaried coaches, travel costs, and customized jerseys. Mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body—is fine. But does anyone want to argue that golf is a liberal art?

And in academics, it’s no longer threadbare Mr. Chips. At research universities, tuition bills include stratospheric salaries for star faculty. But even at Occidental College, full professors now average $110,000 for a nine-month year, an increasingly common sum. And due to tenure, they make up most of its faculty. Intimate education, such as small seminars, is highly labor intensive. And intensively expensive. 

Liberal arts colleges like to boast of their low student-faculty ratios. But watch out. Their professors may be taking leaves—which are largely paid under “tuition”—and so won’t be teaching your offspring. At one school my coauthor and I visited while researching our book on the cost of college, fully 40 percent of one department’s faculty were away. Nor is it clear that doing research improves teaching. Much of it is now so esoteric that it can only be deciphered by other professors.

Note the near-identical figures for Ken­yon, Reed, and Bowdoin. Coincidence? You’re being asked for $50,000 not due to the cost of education, but because colleges figure this is what the traffic (that’s you) will pay. Even super-endowed Swarthmore is billing $51,500.

Let’s return to the four-year payout. Sadly, few parents are putting much, if anything, into college savings. So the checks are more often being written by students themselves, who are taking out larger and larger loans. Is a $200,000 degree worth it? Not if a generation of Americans will be commencing their adult lives with huge debts, plus very real prospects of default.

Are we talking about a good education or a brand-name degree? There are several hundred private liberal arts programs, either in universities or at freestanding schools. Yet many without widely-known names are charging close to $50,000, even though there’s no assurance their degrees will open doors. For our book, we tracked graduates of a top college, and found most had quite average lives. On the other hand, corporate CEOs are more likely to have attended regional schools, like Louisiana Tech, Wichita State, and Central Connecticut.

[See U.S. News's list of best public universities.]

In visiting campuses, we found schools where you can get a fine liberal arts education at a relatively modest price. Public universities like Arizona State and Ole Miss have Honors Colleges, with caring professors and small classes. But we’d also recommend considering taking your first two years at a community college. They all have liberal arts sequences, also with small classes, where you can get to know the faculty. At Oregon’s Portland Community College, we spoke with enthusiastic students, who pay an annual $3,666. State systems make it easy to transfer to a four-year campus, like Western Oregon in the coastal wine country, which emphasizes the liberal arts. Its tuition, room, and board come to $15,294, bringing a four-year total at the two schools to $37,920.