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Skidmore's $200,00 question Putting a price on value
An expensive college education Is it worth it?
Keeping up for the Joneses As tuitions rise, so does financial aid
Proving ground Quantifying quality learning
An educator's education One woman's story
Reaping rewards and paying forward The benefits of a liberal arts education
Both sides now Alumni instructors take stock



 

 



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Private liberal arts colleges like Skidmore make up a small fraction of the American higher-education landscape. It’s a fraction that’s been called both classical and creative, both pricey and a good bet, but no labels can begin to express the complexities in the true costs and actual benefits of such an educational investment. To get at those complex truths, Skidmore is undertaking more deliberate and active efforts to delineate its goals, proof points, and effectiveness—making a “value proposition” and taking it public.

Beginning with the exclusive, elite institutions of America’s early history, higher education expanded its reach as land-grant universities were established, the GI Bill made college affordable for huge numbers of World War II veterans, and civil rights movements broke down ethnic and gender barriers. At the same time, technology was reshaping society and the job market. Soon a bachelor’s degree rather than a high school diploma became the base-level prerequisite for many careers.

The undergraduate residential campus experience developed too, and the more it developed better facilities and smaller classes, the more costs rose, often faster than general inflation rates. Tuition and living expenses now top $51,000 per year at Skidmore (and about the same at similar colleges); that’s over $200,000 for a typical undergrad cycle. Yet accessibility hasn’t suffered in proportion, because many schools like Skidmore have been boosting their financial aid budgets even faster than their tuition rates, helping them to keep bringing in strong, diverse classes. In the past six years Skidmore’s aid pool has nearly doubled (from $16 million to $31 million); last year it grew again even though overall budgets were cut. Founded as a school for working girls and achieving college status only in 1922, Skidmore has amassed a much smaller endowment than most of its peer colleges, so it still can’t offer as much aid to as many applicants as its competitors can. But it has always prided itself on squeezing the most out of its resources to move unflaggingly forward, and indeed its selectivity and high-quality education got it named a “new Ivy” in a 2006 national ranking.

It was also 2006 when a US Education Department commission released a report calling for greater accountability and proofs of learning at colleges and universities. The accountability wave was already swelling in higher education as costs rose, government subsidies shrank, and competition tightened in admissions and employment. Now, said the federal commission, colleges should institute more formal assessment programs to demonstrate just what and how well their students are learning.

Having arrived at a historic confluence of large-scale economic crises, changing cultural and political pressures, and heightened internal and external scrutiny, Skidmore is embarking on something of a spirit quest, an initiative in critical reflection, to examine its value proposition and chart its future.

Of course, plenty of data indicate that going to college is worth the price. Sandy Baum, a Skidmore economics professor and a national expert on college costs and values, has sheaves of statistics (far outnumbering the headlines about this or that unfortunate grad who took on enormous college loans and now can’t find a lucrative job). On average, graduates repay their college costs and begin outpacing the earnings of nongraduates by age 30 or so. As adults they tend to vote more, volunteer more, and certainly pay more taxes. And some measures show that students at high-quality private institutions do better than those at publics—for example, finishing their degrees in four years rather than five. But numbers aren’t the half of it. As Baum asked Skidmore’s Council of 100 (an advisory group of alumni leaders) in an April meeting on campus, “When Martin Luther King decided to be a minister and social leader instead of going to law school and making much more money, could any of us say he made a bad choice? Did society get less benefit from his life?”

The vast majority of liberal arts alumni know, and live, the difference their educations have made in their professional and personal careers. Part of Skidmore’s engagement with its value proposition is to hear directly from alumni, in meetings this fall and winter, about Skidmore’s impact on their lives and their ideas about its future challenges and choices; for more on that, click here. Meanwhile, for more on the issues behind the value proposition, see the following feature stories.