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All college and university presidents like to think their institutions are something special, but presidents at the roughly 130 liberal arts colleges represented by the Annapolis Group now have some data to back up their claims and some ammunition with which to engage in the intensifying competition that many face from public universities.

The group compared survey responses of alumni of the Annapolis Group institutions with those of alumni of private universities, the top 50 public universities and a broader group of public flagship universities. The study found that graduates of Annapolis Group institutions tended to be more satisfied with their experiences as undergraduates, and more likely to believe that their educations had a significant impact on their personal and professional development.

The data in the report could help these institutions overcome two hurdles. First, it may help them show the value of the education they offer, which often comes at a $40,000 to $50,000 annual sticker price. Second, at a time when liberal arts colleges are facing more competition than ever, including increased competition from both public and private universities, the data may help differentiate liberal arts colleges, aiding them in attracting the types of students the colleges think can most benefit from the education they offer.

That could include full-paying students, who are becoming an increasingly hot commodity in the higher education world, particularly out-of-state students at public universities facing budget cuts. Given the high cost of educating students in the liberal arts model, these full-pay students make the high-cost liberal arts model viable.

James H. Day, principal at Hardwick Day, an enrollment consulting firm that conducted the survey for the Annapolis Group, said the group interviewed alumni to get a sense of their outcomes from the undergraduate experience. The survey asked questions about what students did as undergraduates, whether they thought that experience had an impact on their professional path, and their overall satisfaction with the undergraduate experience.

According to the results, 77 percent of alumni from liberal arts colleges rated their undergraduate experience “excellent,” compared to 59 percent of alumni from private universities and 56 percent from the top 50 public universities. Graduates of Annapolis Group member institutions also reported that their college experience made them better prepared for life after college, career changes, and graduate school than did alumni from other sectors. They also reported being as prepared for their first jobs as alumni from other institutions.

The study places a significant amount of credit for that preparation on the structure of the liberal arts education. The report found that students at Annapolis Group institutions were more likely to have classes that required more reading and writing, the types of work that the authors of Academically Adrift concluded led to academic progress. (The authors of Academically Adrift included liberal arts colleges in their study, and found that even students at those institutions did not progress as much as expected.) Liberal arts college alumni also reported that they benefited from interaction with faculty members, small classes, and teaching-oriented faculty members -- more so than alumni from other sectors.

Part of this might be a result of the sector’s selectivity. The Annapolis Group consists of many of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country, and students who choose to go to such institutions tend to be well-prepared, academically focused, and motivated.

Still, administrators say the data provide a compelling case for the value of a liberal arts degree at a time when many criticize the high cost and question the extent to which such paths will remain relevant for young people (and their parents) who increasingly want higher education to lead to a job. “The most expensive degree is the one that doesn’t get you anything,” Tori Haring-Smith, president of Washington and Jefferson College, in Pennsylvania, said at a presentation of the results Tuesday. Other presidents echoed the sentiment, saying the data still show that a liberal arts degree delivers what it promises, while other institutions sometimes do not.

That will probably be a refrain the institutions employ moving forward, particularly as they face more competition for students. Traditionally, liberal arts colleges have competed with one another for students. That has changed in recent years, with more types of institutions vying for the students, often well-prepared and capable of paying full price, that have traditionally been attracted to liberal arts colleges. While most liberal arts college presidents said they’ve see the quality of admitted students continue to rise, they said they are facing a more diverse array of competing institutions.

While the framing of the survey clearly pitted the liberal arts colleges against public and private universities, administrators at Tuesday's meeting said the motivation behind the report wasn't so much about bringing other institutions down as showing the value of the liberal arts model.

Large public universities have set up small honors colleges to try to offer a small-campus feel while still providing public university amenities such as big-time sports programs. Rather than seeing overlap with other liberal arts colleges, the presidents of the College of Saint Benedict, in Minnesota, and Washington & Jefferson College, in Pennsylvania, both said the institutions that their applicants most commonly applied to in addition to their own were large public institutions. The presidents of Skidmore College and Kenyon College said they saw the most overlap with private universities. “Who we’re attracting and who we’re competing against is a fast-moving target,” said Mary Ann Baenninger, president of Saint Benedict.

The type of data presented in the report could help draw distinctions between the type of education offered at a liberal arts institution and what’s offered at a public or private university. “The data show that a student with potential is best going to realize that potential at a liberal arts college,” Baenninger said.

Christine Keller, director of research at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which represents 221 public institutions, many of which fall into the top-50 public and flagship public categories in the survey, said that the report in general shows the value of higher education and that students in all sectors are pleased with the outcomes. She did note that the framing of the study left out some aspects that are central to the undergraduate experience at public universities, such as research and science, technology, engineering, and math education.

It also doesn't address the issue that many students cannot participate in the liberal arts model, which typically means moving away from home for four years. "I agree that the higher education literature says that’s important to have a residential campus and small classes, but the reality is that not all students are able to do that," she said.

Keller also said the motivation behind the survey, to show how alumni believe institutions are faring and what they think of their own experiences, is a mindset that colleges and universities need to employ frequently.

Annapolis Group presidents said the report could also help them raise awareness among groups that might not consider liberal arts colleges because of reputation or price but would likely benefit from that type of education. Baenninger said six Annapolis institutions in her state are getting together to distribute information about liberal arts education to the parents of middle school students in hopes of raising awareness about the sector.

The report could also have policy implications. Given the pressures that state budget cuts are placing on lawmakers, many have to choose between funding state institutions and state aid programs, which can benefit students who go to private institutions. Annapolis institutions can try to make the case that they offer a better investment, and a greater graduation rate, than public institutions. “Should the money follow the student or should the money follow the institution?” Haring-Smith said.

The problem with that is that most liberal arts colleges are already at capacity. Annapolis Group institutions serve only about 3 percent of the college-going population. While they may do a better job graduating underprivileged students, and while they may be cheaper than state colleges after financial aid in some instances, they cannot scale up to meet the human capital needs of states.

The residential liberal arts model is also an expensive one that requires a campus, low student-to-faculty ratios, abundant education resources, and student life amenities. Skidmore spent about $36,000 per student on education-related expenses in 2009, according to the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. The nearby State University of New York at Albany spent about $14,500.

The Annapolis Group presidents said they hope other institutions and lawmakers, both domestically and abroad, can learn from the study's findings. They say the model employed by their institutions is one that is successful and valuable, and should influence how other higher education institutions change to meet growing demand for quality degree production.

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