There has been much reporting in recent days about college costs and student debt, most of it depressing. The “Occupy Wall Street” protestors are concerned, among other things, about their college debt. Articles abound about graduates who say they are in “debt bondage.” The College Board, in its annual survey on tuition and fees, reports (to no one’s surprise) that the cost of college continues to rise nationally at a rate significantly higher than the rate of inflation. Recently, President Obama has proposed changes  to the federal student loan program to address some of these concerns.
In the midst of this discussion is the emergence of a new tool designed to help families estimate the actual cost of enrolling at a particular school — the online net price calculator.  Mandated by the Higher Education Act of 2008, the net price calculator, found on college financial aid Websites, is intended to give students and families a truer sense of the actual costs of obtaining a college education. However, I am concerned that this obscures the concept of value. Colleges offer different experiences, and this is a key part of the equation that cannot be addressed by a one-size-fits-all product.
Like most colleges and universities, Alma College provides substantial assistance to the majority of students. Ninety-nine percent of our students do not pay the published “sticker price.” They receive scholarships, grants or other financial assistance that knocks thousands of dollars off their bills. Indeed, the College sets aside about $22 million every year -- 37 percent of its budget -- in institutional financial aid to make a college education more affordable. For colleges like Alma, the initial college price tag is just a starting point for discussion.
I agree that the online price calculator can aid in understanding college expenses. But the information it provides should be a part of a larger picture. Our primary challenge continues to be in quantifying the value of an Alma College education. What makes us different? How can we communicate the value of the more personalized education we pride ourselves on at Alma? What kinds of educational opportunities, both in- and outside of the classroom, are available here that you cannot get at a “less expensive” school? What are the academic strengths of each of the schools you are considering? What are the job- or graduate school placement rates? Can you graduate in four years? Have your toured a variety of campuses to see where you “fit?” Have you talked with a faculty member or coach about the value of the school’s experience? What do our alumni say they gained at Alma?
Cost by itself is not enough. It must be associated with value, and that is impossible to put into a worksheet. That’s why we continue to find ways to tell the compelling story of Alma College. I suspect it’s the same at every liberal arts college.