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In his famous book on capitalism, Max Weber warned that our modern world would increasingly be driven by endless attempts at measurement, accountability, efficiency, and control. These efforts would trap us, he cautioned, in an "iron cage" of rationality that precluded other ways of assessing value and setting policy – like intuition, tradition, imagination, values and personal meaning.

In this spirit of measurement and accountability, the U.S. Department of Education is bringing unprecedented scrutiny to the increasing cost of higher education, which has exceeded the CPI (Consumer Price Index) annually for most of the last 20 years. The Bush Administration’s "Spellings Commission" report argues that higher education suffers from "inadequate attention to cost measurement and cost management" and that "new performance benchmarks should be designed to measure and improve productivity and efficiency." The report's recommendations were carried out in the 2008 Higher Education Act, when Congress required the Education Department to develop metrics to rank and assess universities and colleges based on costs and financial aid, and to provide a variety of other consumer information.

But how much is too much to pay for a college education? Can American higher education be more accountable, transparent, and forthcoming with telling measures of value without withering in Weber’s iron cage of bureaucratic oversight? Can we avoid the trap of soulless accountability without retreating into the cloistered mysteries of the educational process and professional expertise?

At the Education Department’s College Affordability and Transparency Center, created by Congressional mandate, "consumers" can now compare side-by-side the most expensive and least expensive institutions. When looking at private four-year nonprofit institutions, the likely suspects show up at the top of the list – highly selective liberal arts colleges – Bates, Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence, Vassar, Colgate, Wesleyan. A more accurate measure of what people actually pay for college is net price, which takes into account that most public and private colleges "discount" their tuition price through grants and scholarships, both merit and need-based. If you look at net prices (average tuition minus average scholarship), a very different list emerges. Surprisingly, 8 of the top 10 highest net-price schools are art schools (fine art, design, theater, dance) or music conservatories. In fact, almost every major private art school in America is listed in the top 5 percent of most expensive colleges in the United States.

Using a narrow interpretation of net price, the Education Department site might lead consumers to reasonably conclude that art schools are inefficient, poorly managed, unable to control costs and a bad deal for students and parents, especially given the widespread belief that most artists are, starving, depressed, and dissatisfied with their career choice. Are such conclusions warranted?

First, why are art schools so expensive? It is not because they pay their faculty too much; art professors are the lowest-paid teachers in the academy. It is not because of expensive athletic facilities or huge administrative staffs. Instead, the high costs are directly associated with the quality of their teaching mission. Music performance, dance, painting, design and most other arts are still typically taught through intensive, often one-to-one mentoring, which makes for very low student-teacher ratios and high costs.

These programs are often facility- and equipment-intensive with students learning, literally, ancient techniques — Baroque performance practice or intaglio print making — as well as becoming familiar with emerging technologies and media at the center of the growing creative economy, from digital recording, to animation, to film, to 3-D prototyping machines. Finally, many art schools are purposefully located in urban centers where students have access to a dense network of artists and arts organizations, internships, job opportunities and performance and presentation venues, all of which drive operating costs. So, price and consumer cost are directly associated with the quality of the educational experience. Perhaps art schools are priced just right for the education they deliver.

Obviously, net price does not provide everything one needs to know or consider in terms of institutional management. Moreover, it says nothing about educational value. Return on investment implicates many factors that must be taken into account when estimating the cost and benefits of higher education.

And art schools, in spite of their high costs, may yet prove a good value, according to recent findings from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). SNAAP is an ongoing effort to collect information from art school graduates. Data from over 13,000 graduates across more than 150 different institutions reveals that arts alumni are largely satisfied with their education and believe their training prepared them well for future work. Ninety percent of those surveyed in 2010 said their overall experience in art school was good or excellent and 76 percent would attend the same institution again if given the choice.

Given the intensive mentoring and training and the low student-teacher ratios, we were not surprised to find that 89 percent of students were satisfied with their classroom instruction. Across this large variety of participating schools, 57 percent of graduates reported that they have worked as "professional artists." That number rose to 74 percent when cross-referenced with those who expressed an ambition to work as a professional artist. A very large percentage, more than half, are finding work teaching the arts. Moreover, attending art school in an urban environment, although costly, turns out to be a good strategic decision for many. More than a quarter of graduates end up staying and working as artists in the same city where they went to school; 31 percent report developing important networks with professional artists off campus while they were in school; and many report participating in an off-campus internship. Not surprisingly, art school graduates are not among the highest earners. Petroleum engineers do much better. But the unemployment rate for art school graduates is about the same as for other holders of bachelor's degrees, they’re not all waiting tables, and, importantly, they report relatively high career satisfaction.

These data suggest that most art school graduates report a great deal of value from their educational experience. On the flip side, SNAAP data also reveal that debt is a serious deterrent for arts graduates who may end up pursuing non-arts careers because of their debt load. Art schools may find it difficult to cut costs dramatically, but they should do whatever possible to devote more resources to reduce student debt and increase need-based financial aid in order to ameliorate the debilitating effects of student debt on career opportunities.

To better understand the value proposition of a college education and to provide a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between cost, quality, mission, and outcomes, we need more fine-grained data sources like SNAAP. Simple-minded rankings and metrics might make good sound bites, but they will not inform policies and practices that will enhance educational value.

To be sure, arts schools cannot be and should not be excused from being held accountable to their constituents. Rather, they need to present the data that show their approach to education is distinctive; an approach that emphasizes critical feedback, mentoring and relationship building, creativity and risk-taking, and resilience in the face of failure. These outcomes cannot be captured in net price indexes.

While tools like SNAAP are not perfect, they can help institutions, policy makers and higher education consumers to dig much deeper into questions of value. Thoughtful, fine-grained data gathering can provide critical information — both quantitative and qualitative — on a range of outcomes, from how well an institution prepares students for satisfying jobs to how well it develops essential skills and nurtures important lifelong networks. Accountability measures should in the end advance the highest purpose of giving wing to student aspirations, not drive higher education into a bureaucratic iron cage.

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