Private liberal arts education: superior outcomes, competitive price

0826 thumb collegemoneyBY DEBRA RINGOLD | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Why has six years become an acceptable investment in public undergraduate education that over-promises and underperforms?

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The purpose of undergraduate education is to learn to read critically, write and speak fluently, and think for oneself. Skills necessary to the acquisition of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation can be developed across contexts and disciplines, but are clearly distinct from, and necessary to, professional education. 

A more elaborate version of this philosophy has been offered by LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) a national advocacy, campus action, and research initiative that champions the importance of a twenty-first century liberal education—for individuals and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality.”  Some of the desired outcomes articulated by LEAP are:

  • Inquiry and analysis
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Written and oral communication
  • Quantitative literacy
  • Information literacy
  • Teamwork and problem solving

A commitment to these outcomes has traditionally been, and continues to be, the hallmark of America’s private liberal arts colleges. And while private liberal arts colleges are often characterized as highly selective, prestigious, and the like, some are said to be colleges that actually transform lives.

Steven Koblik, then President of Reed College, argued in 1999 that residential liberal arts colleges “…remain the best models of undergraduate education in the country…[focused on] the preparation of our youth for lives that will be satisfying professionally and intellectually.” Empirical evidence appears to support this contention (see for example, Astin 1999 Distinctively American:  The Residential Liberal Arts Colleges, Arum and Roksa 2011 Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses as does Koblik’s observation that “[e]ducators at the large public schools create ‘honors colleges’…to try to emulate [liberal arts college] values.”

Research finds that high quality liberal arts colleges are committed to practices repeatedly demonstrated to produce positive student outcomes. These are:  frequent student-faculty interaction;  frequent student-student interaction;  generous expenditures on student services;  a strong faculty emphasis on diversity;  frequent use of interdisciplinary and humanities courses; frequent use of courses that emphasize writing;  frequent use of narrative evaluations;  infrequent use of multiple choice exams;  frequent involvement of students in independent research; and frequent student involvement in faculty research. Arum and Roksa (2011) report that students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work, and communications showed the smallest gains.

The disappointing performance of public colleges and universities is often rationalized by the putative access they provide. One form of access is the Pell Grant, a federal need-based award that is not repaid. According to National Center for Education Statistics data on public “flagship” institutions and top liberal arts colleges in Oregon and Washington reveals a disparity in undergraduate Pell Grant recipients.  For the most recent academic year for which data is available (i.e., 2012-2013), 26% of all University of Oregon and 25% University of Washington undergraduate students received a Pell Grant.  In contrast, 10% of Whitman College students, 17% of Reed College students, and 21% of Willamette University undergraduates received a Pell Grant. 

Having said that, significantly larger percentages of undergraduate students enrolled in Whitman College (86%) and Willamette University (89%) received some sort of grant and/or scholarship assistance than did undergraduates enrolled in the University of Oregon (50%) or the University of Washington (46%).  Forty-three percent of Reed College undergraduates received grant or scholarship aid during the 2012-2013 academic year.

More interesting is a rough analysis of graduation rates, average total cost of annual attendance, and opportunity costs of two Oregon institutions. For example, 71% of Willamette University undergraduates complete their Bachelor of Arts degrees in four years.  Compare this with University of Oregon’s six-year graduation rate of 68%.  It takes U of O students two more years to complete a Bachelor’s degree than WU undergraduates.  The average total cost of attendance yearly at the U of O is about $19,000. At WU, the average total cost of attendance per year is about $34,000. Looks like a substantial price difference but read on.

If it takes a student four years to complete a BA at WU, the total cost of attendance is about $136,000. On the other hand, a student at UO who takes six years to complete his/her BA will pay about $114,000.  The difference in those two students’ disbursements is about $22,000. 

Willamette University liberal arts graduates typically earn about $31,000 to start.  So, if we figure that during the two years WU graduates are not in college when U of  O students still are, they earn about $62,000.  In this context, the $22,000 difference in what WU graduates paid to complete their degree two years sooner and with better educational outcomes seems like a pretty good investment.  In fact, one could argue that a WU education represents a great value.

The previous comparison did not consider the effects of inflation. We can refine these estimates to take into account tuition and other increases over the four- and six-year periods ($142,039 at WU for four years vs. $124,236 at UO for six years; difference is $17,803), but the bottom line is still the same. Spending about 15% more than the total cost of attendance at U of O buys WU’s better educational outcomes and two years of earnings.

So, what does this mean for students, parents, and policy makers?  Time to degree does matter.  In the six years it takes the majority of our public university undergraduates to complete a bachelor degree they should be able to complete a bachelor’s degree and most master’s degrees.  The outcomes produced by the liberal arts matter.  Public undergraduate education could replicate, for all students, what it accomplishes in its honors colleges—intimate, high quality academic instruction and interaction with members of the faculty and well prepared peers.  Why has six years become an acceptable investment in public undergraduate education that over-promises and underperforms?

Debra J. Ringold is Dean and JELD WEN Professor of Free Enterprise, Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Willamette University.