07/16/2012 05:34 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2012

An Overlooked Resource?

We're all familiar with the stories of high school students who, obsessed with gaining entry into the "right" colleges, sacrifice sleep due to long nights of studying, collect memberships in honor societies and academic clubs like they were Barbie dolls, volunteer hours at the local zoo or nursing home, feel a fever in their chests as they cram for tests, and a burning in their stomachs as they await the results of the latest SAT or the envelope from their targeted institution's Admissions Department.

For some, that institution is one with a worldwide reputation -- you can fill in the blank here -- renowned for their tradition of excellence, and primarily situated on the east or west coast.

Even students who don't rank in the 99th percentile tend to narrow their choices to a certain pantheon of institutions, all highly regarded, household names that are also found primarily on the coasts.

Certainly, there is much to be said for attending a top tier college or university, and I don't mean to imply that highly respected universities are not worth their reputations -- and the extra efforts getting into them may take.

Yet I think many students seeking a high-quality education overlook a great number of institutions that, while they may not have the name recognition of the more prestigious schools, still offer students a satisfying collegiate experience and an excellent education that can help them have a successful professional and personal life.

I'm talking about colleges and universities in the Midwest, and in particular, private non-profit colleges and universities in the Midwest that offer more value and benefits than you may expect.

Kansas private colleges, for example, offer excellent learning environments. With their small class sizes, students have the opportunity for personal attention from professors who choose to focus on teaching undergraduates. Our graduates forge close relationships with professors and fellow students that last a lifetime. At a smaller school, students can also become engaged in a wide range of co-curricular activities that lead to more broadly educated, balanced graduates who are ready to contribute to their communities. Those graduates become doctors, teachers, businesspeople, lawyers and community leaders who can recall fondly the opportunities to compete in intercollegiate athletics, perform with a choir and serve in the community.

The 18 colleges that make up the Kansas Independent Colleges Association are also faith-based institutions, which incorporate a spiritual dimension in their programs and campus life. For example, Newman University is a Catholic university welcoming people of all faiths to grow in their faith.

People often assume that private colleges are too expensive, and there is plenty in the media to keep that perception alive. When families take the time to talk with private college officials, however, they are often surprised at how affordable these institutions are.

Tuition and fees for the KICA four-year institutions averaged $20,744 for the 2011-12 school year, which amounts to 28 percent less than the national average of $28,500 for private colleges. Over the past five years, tuition increases have averaged less than 6 percent, which is less than public university averages. In addition, private college tuition in Kansas is less expensive than out-of-state tuition at most public colleges.

Private colleges in Kansas also offer generous financial aid packages. Together, KICA schools award more than $120 million in institutional grants and scholarships to more than 95 percent of undergraduate students every year, making the average tuition paid about $10,000. In addition, KICA institution graduates tend to have indebtedness that is on a par with graduates of public institutions (averaging $25,000 or less).

With these kinds of benefits, perhaps it's no surprise that KICA collective enrollments have grown 11 percent over the past 10 years, or that Kansas private colleges award 21 percent of bachelor's degrees and 29 percent of master's degrees in the state. The only support provided by the state to these institutions is in the form of need-based grants directly to students -- a total of 1 percent of the state's higher education budget. Now that's a return on investment!

So, I urge readers to look beyond the coasts to the Midwest generally, and Kansas private colleges specifically, when considering college options. We are more affordable. We offer a full range of academic and degree programs, modern, up-to-date facilities, experienced faculty who want their students to succeed, and many opportunities for co-curricular activities. And did I mention great outcomes? For example, 96 percent of Newman University pre-health graduates accepted to medical schools over the last 10 years. Yes, do explore the hidden gems of the Midwest!