With comprehensive fees for a residential liberal arts education reaching or surpassing $50,000 per year, more and more people are asking the question: Is it really worth that much money to educate anybody, anywhere, at any time? Are the minds of ambitious, intellectually driven young people worth it?
The value of a liberal arts education, like the value of life itself, can't be monetized. Those of us asked to defend the high cost of a liberal arts college setting should ask in return, what is the appropriate level of investment in the creative and intellectual dimension that will guide our future? We know how much it costs to provide the educational experience, but is neither the same as what we expect students to pay, nor the same as its value.
We Americans habitually assign cash indicators to things to determine value. If we put our house up for sale, and the buyer agrees to $239,000, we know the value of the house. If we find out three years later that the house sold again for $279,000, we can say its value went up; if it sells for $200,000, we know the value went down. Name brands, discount stores, sticker prices, bargain basements - all such phenomena testify to our interest, some might say our obsession, with value and valuation, especially with the relation between price paid and value determined.
But that's not possible with a liberal arts education, because its value cannot be exchanged for money. We should not confuse the value of a liberal arts education with the cost of tuition and living expenses, as these are entirely distinct matters. In fact, a liberal arts education itself may be had for free, more or less. Its value, however, is measured not in dollars, but in terms that make us put our wallets back into our purses and pockets. The value of a liberal arts education is more properly measured by the quality of life and mind it instills, by intellectual spirit, and by the sustaining inspiration of thinking intensely and creatively qualities that inform minds at a young age and unfold over a lifetime, but are impossible to exchange for cash.
An enterprising person could walk into a college bookstore, purchase the books for the class on early American history, read them all, and educate herself for a few hundred dollars. Even cheaper, she could find many of the books in the library for free. That same set of books might be offered in a class taught in a large lecture hall of 300 students, a small seminar of 15, an interactive web portal, or an independent study with a weekly tutorial. In any classroom, there might be chalk and board, DVD projection, a computer display, internet access, or nothing but a round oak table, 10 students, and one of the world's experts on those books under study (maybe the professor wrote one of the texts). Or, the teacher might be a second-year graduate student learning a lot of the material for the first time himself. There might be a learning center on campus with a staff devoted to helping with study skills; in that center might be an expert on learning disabilities. Or there may be no such academic support service. Or it may be too poorly staffed to meet the needs of many students.
All of these things have a value measurable by what they cost, except the effect of those books on the mind of the reader. The computer projection, the oak table, the learning center staff - all of these phenomena may be exchanged for money. But not the learning. In the end, one acquires an education by working for it, not by purchase. A liberal arts education is not the result of a monetary transaction, because the value of that education cannot be monetized. Where the money comes into play is the services surrounding that acquisition.
Because a liberal arts education cannot be monetized and exchanged, the question of its dollar value is the wrong question to ask. The appropriate question is, what is the value of the setting in which the liberal arts education is pursued, and are there students and families who find that setting worth the monetary sacrifice? How much training, support, social opportunity, and community experience do we think it appropriate to provide those who will be leading our society in the future? Now, these are good questions.
When we talk to an insurance agent about life insurance, we don't discuss the value of our life. No insurance agent will ask, "What is your life worth?" Instead, the agent assesses the value of your life's material setting: your house, your assets, and the wealth you are likely to generate from the point of life insurance purchase until the day that the actuary has post-dated your return.
A liberal arts education can cost almost nothing. One can go to the website of any liberal arts college or university, drill down to its academic departments, find the courses, find the syllabi (there are thousands posted on faculty websites), then go to the library and start reading. The sciences may pose a problem, but, with increasing frequency, there are virtual lab simulations accessible online.
Decide you need the classroom? The least expensive route is to enroll in a community college or state university, many of which are superb. Find them too crowded? Want to pursue an education with a cohort of fellow learners? Want to play a competitive sport, or play in the orchestra? Took a class with a smaller enrollment and found that more conducive to learning? It'll cost you more, but there are a range of small liberal arts colleges that provide a more intimate learning experience. You say you tried one but were put off by the absence of academic support services and wanted even more access to your professors?
The most expensive colleges have all these things in the setting of the education, and there are enough of these colleges, geared to various levels of academic preparation and ability, that anyone can find one suited to their desires. But the value of the setting will mean students will pay more for it than at most other educational outlets.
How much you'll pay for that experience is another matter, separate from its value. At the most expensive liberal arts colleges - those that make the news for their high tuition and fees - the setting is challenging but nurturing, protected from external distractions, and artificially constructed to assure a wide range of intellectual and athletic stimulation. Many provide one professor for every eight or 10 students, and nearly every professor has a PhD or terminal degree in his field, and is actively engaged in research or a creative endeavor, defining the classroom by current knowledge and experience.
Science facilities are state-of-the-art, classrooms are fully equipped with technology, academic support centers are devoted to specific skills like writing and quantitative reasoning, professionals are available to assist nonnative speakers with English, and specialists are waiting to help accommodate learning disabilities. Often, science professors are assisted by lab technicians to free their time for students, and summer fellowships allow students to pursue research with faculty members.
The setting is not for everyone. A traditional American work ethic dominates the student culture. It's socially suspect to skip class or seek shortcuts. There are no back rows in small classrooms, and it's inconceivable, short of something going terribly wrong, to attend class unprepared.
Do students complain? Yes, when the class isn't sufficiently challenging, when they're not asked to read or do enough, or when they feel the professor isn't giving them all she's got in terms of preparation, or investment in their education.
For every student who attends our finest residential liberal arts colleges, five or 10 have been turned away. Many students receive financial aid. The most resourceful liberal arts colleges are need blind, admitting those considered the most talented among their applicants, creating as diverse and intellectually stimulating a student body as possible, and making it financially possible for all who accept admission to attend. Financial aid is structured to attract the best, brightest minds and educate them at an affordable cost. Our liberal arts colleges' social mission demands an elaborate, expensive infrastructure for the select portion of college age students who respond to the distinctive programmatic rigor that these colleges provide.
When students are about to graduate, I make it a habit to ask them what they plan to read in the months ahead. Invariably, I am answered with a list of titles, areas in which the graduate feels deficient, subjects he did not quite get to as a student. In this era when those with less interest in the life of mind are asking for three-year degrees, students at residential liberal arts colleges are finding four years, out of a life-span of 80, a preciously short period of time to devote to intensive, sustained, uninterrupted intellectual endeavors.
My students continue to write to me years after graduation, reporting on their reading and continued education, and recalling defining moments in and out of the classroom. A liberal arts education never ends with Commencement. Instead, it commences a life of self-education and refinement, rooted in the memory of four years of intense intellectual journey, often in a pastoral setting, safely bubbled away from the world of commerce, where the student acquired the capacity to fulfill a lifelong journey of the mind. On it goes, long after the tuition is paid: value accrues in one's sense of a life worth living, wholly apart from the exchange of money.
Joseph R. Urgo is dean of faculty at Hamilton College (N.Y.). Next month he will become president of St. Mary's College of Maryland.