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.