All too often, especially in lean economic times, students and families disregard private institutions out of hand because of the perceived cost. But in the battle for talented students, private liberal arts colleges will win the day by showing students and families considering higher education that “private” doesn’t mean “expensive.”
A few weeks ago, my institution, Juniata College, released a new policy, guaranteeing our students the ability to graduate in four years, or the fifth year is on us.
Well, from the reactions of some of the public universities in Pennsylvania, you might have thought I had suggested eliminating college sports. The fact is, private liberal arts colleges excel at giving students the tools to maintain momentum toward graduation within four years.
National statistics bear this out. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities says nearly 80 percent of students at private colleges who finish graduate in four years, compared to about 50 percent at public institutions.
Juniata did not decide to guarantee that almost all our students will graduate in four years as a cheap marketing ploy designed to take shots at state universities. Rather, it’s a call to arms for all colleges and universities to start their own affordability comparisons.
Our numbers have been splashed across newspapers and read over the airwaves. You can Google them at will. They are: Juniata’s tuition of $28,920 per year goes down to $13,786 per year once our financial aid package kicks in. That makes the four-year bill, after we add in yearly education-related fees, $60,536.
Compare that with what U.S. News & World Report noted in the November 5 issue: “Since it is now taking the average public university student more than six years to graduate, the cost of a public college degree is now more than $90,000, about 25 percent more than it was for the freshmen of five years ago.”
When we compared our figures to the publics, we also added a cost not many people talk about: the earnings a person would have made if he or she had graduated on time. Based on a very conservative annual earnings estimate of $21,000, two extra years in school will “cost” an extra $42,000 above tuition.
So, if you consider lost earnings, that “state school” education isn’t looking so affordable, is it?
Juniata was able to make our “four years and out” guarantee because our “Jun-ique” educational mission and curriculum  gives our students great flexibility in accomplishing their goals.
Instead of traditional majors, we use programs of emphasis, in which students can design their own educational plan. If they change their minds about a career path once (or even twice), they won’t lose momentum by taking new prerequisites. Our study abroad programs -- 40 percent of our students study abroad -- focus on programs that offer courses and credit applicable to our students’ programs. Finally, we use internships within our curriculum to offer students academic credit and experiential learning without sacrificing extracurricular time or activities -- 85 percent of our students have at least one real-world internship.
And before anyone sniffs at our flexibility as somehow a lack of “standards,” that favored panacea of bureaucrats everywhere, our results speak for themselves: 96 percent of graduates over the last five years either secured employment or went to graduate school within six months of graduation.
In 2006, 96 percent of those Juniatians who graduated, did so in four years or less. Over the past few years, 92 percent of our graduating students have done so in four years or less. In our system, in which two faculty members advise students throughout their college career, there is very little retracing of steps and no wrong turns -- mainly because our curriculum is highly adaptable.
In reality, our guarantee isn’t much of a gamble because we are already succeeding beyond many of our private college peers and well beyond the state universities. Instead, it makes policy the good work that has long been practice at Juniata.
To those forward-looking institutions willing to take the challenge with us, to do everything we can to ensure the affordability of a great education, let us put our numbers on the table and let our constituents decide.
Thomas Kepple is president of Juniata College, an undergraduate liberal arts college in Huntingdon, Pa.