08/09/2012 12:38 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Is College Too Costly?

"College is outrageously expensive," asserts Michael Noer in a recent column in Forbes. As a private college president, I take issue with that statement of course. The statement focuses only on cost ... not return on investment. Fortunately, most of the families of American undergraduates see beyond cost. According to a national study ("How America Pays for College") conducted this year by the financial services company SallieMae, more than three-quarters of the undergraduates and their families who were surveyed strongly believe that the long-term value of a college education is indeed worth the investment. What's more, they say that having a college degree is more important now than ever.

Admittedly, the cost of a college education remains a concern for families, a concern that continues to be fueled by the media attention given to issues such as student loan debt. Some prospective students may be discouraged from applying to any college. So how should we in the higher education community respond?

We must continue to demonstrate, through the education we offer, that a college degree is indeed an experience that brings lifelong rewards, both personally and professionally, for students. Liberal arts colleges, in particular, are responding by providing not only the rigorous academic preparation for which they have long been known, but experiences, in and out of the classroom, that give students the professional knowledge and skills they will need to fulfill their career aspirations. At Albion College, we have developed a career readiness program that helps students identify their goals and a path to achieve them beginning in their first year on campus. Our program builds on a solid liberal arts foundation and, over the course of our students' four years on campus, encompasses experiential learning, through internships, focused research, and other real-world involvements. We are preparing our students not only for that first job after college but for professional leadership roles down the road.

We must do a better job of articulating the outcomes of a college education. Today, we know from numerous surveys, including the one by SallieMae, that students and parents are placing high priority on those outcomes. Parents especially want assurance that their student will leave college with a clearly defined career path, which means finding immediate employment after graduation and/or pursuing a graduate degree. The higher education community -- as individual institutions and through our professional associations -- needs to gather and disseminate data that reflect the true value of a college education and do so in a clear, easily accessible format.

We must do all we can to ensure that a college education remains affordable. A recent report by the American Council on Education ("Putting College Costs into Context") indicates that colleges have accelerated efforts to hold down costs and make a quality education affordable for students at all income levels, and especially for low- and middle-income students. We need to constantly seek efficiencies in how we operate and to identify more sources of funding to minimize the financial burden placed on families. Many of our colleges are fortunate to have a strong alumni base that recognizes the importance of scholarships for attracting and retaining students.

We must inform students and their families about the resources available to fund a college education. At Albion (and at many private colleges), our financial aid staff works individually with families, as needed, to identify all sources of assistance for which they may qualify. We view ourselves as partners with students in helping them to achieve their educational goals, and we make sure that we clearly define each component of a student's financial aid package and the responsibilities and expectations associated with that package. Students should also find reassurance in the fact that, according to the SallieMae report, 65 percent of families paid for college without a student loan. Grants and scholarships, including those based on merit alone, remain important resources in funding a college education.

As the fall approaches and high school seniors pursue their college search in earnest, I would especially urge them not to start with cost. I would hope that they first identify those institutions which offer experiences and programs that they believe will help them achieve their personal and professional goals. Of course cost will be a consideration, but rather than eliminating college choices early in their search due to cost, families should go through the entire financial aid application process. They may very well find that the final cost of attending college, and perhaps attending their first choice college, is less than they anticipated. Significant aid is available to help make a college education a reality for students.

We applaud the fact that students and their families have become careful consumers when it comes to investing in higher education -- that's as it should be. They should do all they can to make informed choices, including becoming more knowledgeable about scholarships and financial aid. For our part, colleges must ensure that our students are prepared with the knowledge and skills needed for a successful future, that we effectively convey the value of a college education, and that we provide an exceptional education at the lowest cost possible. Most importantly, we must redouble our commitment to working as partners with families in making the dream of higher education possible for our youth.