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High-Quality Education Comes At A High Price

Rick Green

October 27, 2009

The cost of college is exploding, yet students are applying in record numbers.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education estimates that tuition and fees have risen 439 percent since 1982, while the Consumer Price Index has grown by 106 percent and median family income has increased by 147 percent.

Is it any wonder that the College Board reports that higher education "feels out of reach to many students and families"?

"Institutions will have to find ways to offer high-quality higher education in a more cost-effective manner," the board dryly concludes in its "Trends in College Pricing" report.

How is it, then, that private colleges, especially in New England, can advertise $40,000 or $50,000 sticker prices for one year of education? If this were merely about learning, at these prices you could hire a full-time tutor for your 18-year-old scholar.

Trying to figure this out, I headed over to Trinity College, where tuition and other fees hit $51,400 this year.

"This is a very expensive operation," Trinity President James F. Jones told me as we sat in his wood-paneled office, beneath the ticking antique clock on the fireplace mantel and the large portrait of George Washington.

"People are willing to shortchange just about everything but their kids' education."

More than 60 percent of Trinity's 2,100 students shell out for the full sticker price. Every year, thousands of applicants line up hoping for admission and the privilege to pay this sum.

A patient professor of humanities who retains a hint of his native Georgia accent, Jones explained his world and its $50,000 in annual dues which felt pretty out of reach to me.

"There are 20,000 Trinity alums. That's all. If you disaggregate the 20,000 and who the 20,000 are, you can pick any field you like." They are owners of "restaurants in New York, top of the line. Finance, top of the line. Bishops in the Episcopal Church. All you've got to do is look at who's been here."

President Jones, affable and full of engaging stories about Trinity's history, urged me to look out the window at the school's signature and impressive "Long Walk" of Gothic-style buildings, and at the chapel, athletic fields and library, all overlooking Hartford.

"The liberal arts model is a very difficult model to compare to the comprehensive university. I have 15 kids in my seminar. I grade all their papers. There are no [teaching assistants]. There is no seating chart."

"There is nothing assembly line about a liberal arts education at all. We've got kids in the sciences in the summertime that are doing hands-on research with members of the faculty in laboratories."

Trinity, like the rest of us, is belt-tightening. Administrators must trim $11 million to balance the budget. Professors are working more. Class sizes are growing slightly. Committees all over campus are studying ways to save money.

"You want an efficient model? The efficient model is a comprehensive university. Put 500 students in a classroom. You are never going to see the professor. That's very efficient moneywise," Jones said.

It doesn't always turn out top of the line. Trinity's success at this is measured in fundraising. Last year alums and other donors gave almost $40 million to the school.

I asked Jones if all this exclusivity will just divide us more, further segmenting a society into those who can pay the entry fee into the good life and those who toil below deck.

"We spend a lot of money every year on financial aid," he responded. "It's $30 million out of [our budget of] $112 million. The other thing that people don't understand is that even kids whose parents are paying the full ticket here, they are not paying the full cost of the education."

"Is this an unaffordable place? Not for the 62 or whatever percent it is who are willing to stretch in order for their children to have an education."

We spent a pleasant hour talking before I finally realized the obvious.

Price is irrelevant when the world wants what you have.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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