11/15/2010 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Truth About Sarah Lawrence

Sarah Lawrence College of Bronxville, N.Y. has had a tough year. Its most prominent living (male) alumnus fully submerged himself in hot water for using an anti-politically correct phrase. Another distinguished alumna passed away. And the tiny school's staggering tuition cost -- $57,556 -- has gilded it with the distinction of America's most expensive college. In the post-recession U.S.A., it's not a laurel one wishes to wear.

Sarah Lawrence President Karen Lawrence isn't too pleased with her school's popular reputation as a haven for the well-heeled. Rather, the noted James Joyce scholar wants the world to know that the college is in the business of, as she puts it, "creating intellectual entrepreneurs." Its price, she said, speaks volumes when put in context.

Sarah Lawrence may be at the helm of the 100 schools that cost more than $50,000, but according to Thomas Blum, the school's Vice President for Administration, the college's average student graduates a relatively mere $15,000 in debt. (That's a far cry from the University of Pennsylvania, from which a student graduates with more than $32,000. The average student debt is $24,000.) Nearly 60 percent of Sarah Lawrence's receive grant aid -- the average package is $27,000 -- and a special fund was created to aid students when the recession's impact was realized. "We focus on need, and we aid deeply to kids who have need," Blum said.

Upholding the school's seminar system, which boasts classes with 12 students and one-on-one tutorials, is one of the its greatest costs. "Intensive 1:1 instruction is an expensive model," Lawrence said. (Oh, and by the way, if you're wondering if Lawrence is one of the country's million-dollar college presidents, she's not. In 2008-2009, Lawrence's salary package amounted to $490,207, including housing.)

Lawrence can list with ease examples of her students' enterprising work that has emerged from the college's distinct learning environment. One student she seemed particularly proud of constructed a biomimicry coat that could be planted after it was worn. Lawrence said there were no majors at the college, and that "a student taking advanced calculus and symphonic music could do mathematical foundations of music" and other such permutations. "Sarah Lawrence in particular fosters an intellectual confidence and curiosity," she said.

There's a certain amount of new-age jargon -- intellectual entrepreneurship and/or confidence, to be sure -- that comes with a liberal arts education, and it's the students who translate this vernacular to everyday life who triumph in one way or another. (As Rahm Emanuel put it in his address to Sarah Lawrence's class of 2009: "I spent some time studying child psychology when I was at Sarah Lawrence. I had no idea how useful that would be--until I came to Washington and started working with members of Congress.") Does this plausible path to success need to be valued at more than $200,000? No. But you also don't have to take it. And if you do, you might get more than you expected -- financially and otherwise.