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Janet Riggs Headshot

Numbers Don't Lie -- A Cost/Value Analysis of a Liberal Arts Degree

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Can the poor and middle class afford an education at a private liberal arts college? And is it a wise investment?

What a shame that news stories about the high costs of college lead many to think that the answer to these questions is no. Not only is a liberal arts education not as expensive as news stories lead us to believe, but there may be no better investment in America today.

According to CNN/Money's interpretation of data provided by Peterson's Guides, the average annual student cost of attending my institution, Gettysburg College, after receipt of grants and scholarships, is $25,400, making the average four-year cost $107,800. That sounds like a lot of money. However, this is significantly less than the "sticker price," thanks to alumni, parents, and friends who believe so strongly in the value of a Gettysburg education that they help support those students who could not afford to attend otherwise.

Now let's factor in the fact that the average living cost for a single person in America, including rent, utilities, cable, groceries, entertainment, transportation and health insurance is $1,300 per month. This doesn't include car payments or insurance, gym memberships, weekend trips, or the occasional vacation.

At Gettysburg we provide our students with high quality dining; access to cultural events, speakers, and fitness facilities; and the opportunities to participate in a vast array of activities. Although one could easily make the case that this quality of life exceeds the average standard of living, let's assume that all of this could be bought for the average living cost of $1,300 per month. That totals $11,700 for the 9 months that our students typically spend on campus each year. If those living costs are subtracted from what the average student is paying, the annual cost for their education is $13,700. So one could conclude that the average cost of a four-year Gettysburg education is under $60,000. And it's worth noting that most of our students earn their degrees in four years.

The point is that when considering cost of a college education, one should factor in living expenses as well as available scholarships and grants. The cost of the education may be far less than the "sticker price" would lead one to believe.

But what about value? Is this investment worth it? Is it worth it enough to take on debt? That's the question we should all be asking, whether it's a private liberal arts college, a business school, or a major research university.

Once again, if we turn to the numbers, we find evidence that a college degree is indeed a financially sound investment. In 2011, a report issued by the Center for Education and the Workforce stated that those holding bachelor's degrees earn nearly a million dollars more over a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma. The numbers make the case.

In addition, a survey of college graduates done in 2002 and repeated in 2011 by education consultant Hardwick Day indicates that relative to graduates of public flagship universities, liberal arts college graduates feel better prepared for life after college and say that their academic preparation played a more important role in their acceptance to graduate school and finding their first job.

The bottom line? A private liberal arts college is an excellent financial investment and within financial reach for most. Fortunately, despite the misleading headlines, many families and students understand this cost/value analysis. For example, the average family income of those going to private colleges here in PA is lower than that of those going to the state universities.

Of course, value extends beyond a paycheck. The same Hardwick Day survey shows that liberal arts college graduates report a higher degree of academic challenge, greater involvement in community service, stronger leadership skill development, greater benefits from high quality teaching-oriented faculty, and greater satisfaction with the overall quality of their education.

Liberal arts colleges are focused on the development of critical thinking, communication, and teamwork skills, all of which are essential to solving the complex issues our globally interconnected world faces. We prepare students to be responsible citizens, individuals who will work to improve their communities. That value to our nation and the world might be harder to quantify than individual salary, but it's no less important.