If we had our choice, Sarah Lawrence would never be listed among the most expensive colleges in America. Since we are, though, and in the premier position with tuition, fees, room, and board set at $58,716 for 2011-2012, it’s important that our colleagues in higher education – as well as the general public – understand exactly what goes into the price, why that investment yields an extraordinary liberal arts education that continues to offer dividends after graduation, and how we help deserving and qualified students attend, regardless of ability to pay.
One of the problems with "most expensive" lists of any kind is that they assume a uniformity of product or service. In fact, though, Sarah Lawrence differs from other institutions, even liberal arts colleges, in fundamental ways. For example, our faculty have twice the one-on-one contact time with individual students as faculty at other prestigious institutions, including liberal arts colleges.
That’s partly because over 90 percent of all Sarah Lawrence classes are small seminars (with an average of 11 students) and every seminar includes a "conference" component in which each student designs an independent project and meets biweekly with the professor to confer on progress. This is essentially a tutorial in the Oxford-Cambridge tradition. Also in that tradition, we assign each student a don, a full-time faculty member who serves as his or her adviser, mentor, and intellectual guide. Donning is necessary because Sarah Lawrence students are accountable for designing their own education in a curriculum with concentrations instead of majors, so the don’s expertise and individual knowledge of each student is consequently invaluable in helping chart the best possible academic course.
Like much at Sarah Lawrence, donning may be difficult to justify on a purely economic basis, as is our refusal to use graduate students as teaching assistants or our insistence on providing extensive written evaluations of each student in each course in addition to grades. But we maintain these standards because we believe the customized, "handcrafted" education we provide helps ensure that each student achieves his or her greatest potential. And like anything handcrafted, it is significantly more cost-intensive, and thus more costly, than what’s produced on an assembly line.
That said, the college is particularly sensitive to the financial pressures facing families. Because of our high sticker price, we feel compelled to provide the most robust financial aid possible, which is why our average financial aid award is over $34,000. But providing that kind of financial support to students, especially in these economic times, comes at a cost. Our faculty, staff, and administrators are in the second year of a salary freeze; we have among the lowest staff-to-student ratios in the liberal arts sector; and we can’t invest in our physical plant nearly as robustly as we’d like. Those are just some of the sacrifices we feel worthwhile to providing the best education possible and making it accessible via financial aid.
Ultimately, the most compelling response to the question of high cost is to focus instead on value. The key issue for us and our constituents is whether we’re providing graduates with the skills and competencies critical to living productive lives and pursuing successful careers.
To some degree, all good colleges do that. But again, Sarah Lawrence goes beyond the traditional benchmark as a result of our process and pedagogy. Because there are no majors, students learn to plan and navigate their own paths, frequently including multiple disciplines that would be impossible elsewhere. As a result, they learn how to learn just about anything. Because writing pervades the curriculum – in virtually every class -- they reason and communicate in a compellingly mature manner. And because we don’t offer vocational courses per se, they learn how to think like entrepreneurs and create their own jobs and careers, which is precisely what the world demands as traditional jobs and professions disappear or are outsourced.
Transformative is a word often used by our alumni to describe their educations, and it aptly describes the contributions of our better-known graduates, such as Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; MacArthur “genius” choreographer Meredith Monk; actors Julianna Margulies, Jane Alexander, and Jill Clayburgh; JJ Abrams, creator of Lost; broadcast journalist and author Barbara Walters; W. Ian Lipkin, physician-scientist whose team first identified the West Nile virus; and Brooke Anderson, Chief of Staff and Counselor for the National Security Agency.
The point, though, isn’t the renown achieved by our alumni. It’s that thousands of Sarah Lawrence grads have transformed themselves, their families, their workplaces, and their communities because of a truly unique educational experience.
And the fact that the model is costly? It means all of us need to find new and creative ways to generate revenue, reduce expenses, and ensure that future generations of deserving and qualified students can benefit from a Sarah Lawrence education. It’s far too glib to quote the MasterCard “priceless” line, and a Sarah Lawrence education is by no means for everyone, but for the intellectually adventurous student who wants to explore learning as deeply as possible under the personal tutelage of a brilliant and caring faculty, I believe there’s no finer education to be had anywhere. Without in any way minimizing the impact of our cost, we’re worth every penny.
Karen Lawrence is president of Sarah Lawrence College.
Henry E. Riggs, president emeritus of Harvey Mudd College and the Keck Graduate Institute, recently argued -- wrongly, in my view -- in The New York Times that it is supply and demand that explains why the price for college is so high. In fact, at the selective, nonprofit privates, there is huge excess demand for seats that is not cleared by price; the seats in these colleges are rationed, with all those rejected applicants (upwards of 90 percent of those who apply to some of these colleges) wanting a spot at the current price.
Price is explicitly not allowed to rise and clear the market. Some parents might have been willing to pay an extra $100 or $1,000 to get their child into their dream school, or perhaps even an extra $10,000, given what they are paying SAT tutors and admissions advisers. Colleges and universities create this excess demand, so that they can select the students they want from the long queue of applicants, recognizing that the quality of their college or university depends to a large extent on the quality of the students who attend. The excess demand is intentional, and is generated by spending more than the price charged and spending those resources in ways that make the institution as attractive as possible to desirable students. Some colleges do this by keeping class size small; some do it by having great football teams.
These expenditure decisions in part depend on what kind of students the college wants to attract – how they define student quality. Why doesn’t Pomona College eliminate tuition and spend less on each student, perhaps what Earlham College spends, as suggested by Riggs? Because then the excess demand on the part of students for a Pomona education would go down, and Pomona would not get to choose among the same quality of applicants as they do now. And they realize that eliminating tuition wouldn’t increase that excess demand as much as cutting spending reduces it. Many families are willing and able to pay for those things that would have to be cut, were tuition not bringing in any revenue to support spending, and will go elsewhere in search of those programs. Are these families and students just in search of prestige? I would argue that prestige is closely related to the quality of the program and of the students who attend an institution, which in turn depends importantly if not perfectly on how much is being spent per student, and not so much on price.
Do they "need" to spend so much, as Riggs asks? Maybe another way of asking this is, is it good for American higher education, or more importantly for America, that this is how this market works? An important outcome of this is that the most talented students, as defined by these selective institutions, have the most spent on their educations. And, with significant resources allocated to financial aid and a commitment to diversity, this includes talented students from all different backgrounds, certainly more so than in the past. If talented students benefit the most from large investments in their education, then this may be optimal. (One could still worry a bit about more being spent on students that these institutions value for reasons other than academic talent, such as legacy status or athletic ability.)
The important public policy question, which in times of budget cuts will become increasingly important, is just how much more should be spent on talented students relative to others. As funding for public higher education, where most students are educated, continues to be reduced, relative spending will shift even more toward the talented students who get admitted to the most selective schools. To the extent that the nonprofit private sector and these selective colleges remain committed to and increase their commitment to academically talented students from all backgrounds, through their admissions and financial aid policies, their large investments are being made for the right reasons.
Catharine Hill is a higher education economist and the president of Vassar College.