Sarah Lawrence Education-Priceless?

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A "Priceless" Education

Forbes has listed Sarah Lawrence College as the most expensive in the country and its president, Karen Lawrence, just wants to explain:

Views: Why We’re No. 1 – Inside Higher Ed

One of the problems with “most expensive” lists of any kind is that they assume a uniformity of product or service. In fact, though, Sarah Lawrence differs from other institutions, even liberal arts colleges, in fundamental ways. For example, our faculty have twice the one-on-one contact time with individual students as faculty at other prestigious institutions, including liberal arts colleges.

She doesn’t really give any specifics except stating that the average financial aid award is over $34,000. She talks more about the “handcrafted” education and the “transformative” experience.

Look, I’m all for Liberal Arts Colleges and am a big believer in their purpose. My husband and I will soon be shelling out serious money so our son can go to a private liberal arts school.

But I believe that numbers have some meaning. Let’s take a quick look at and the 25 schools in the “Similar Colleges” group for Sarah Lawrence. This data is from 2008 but I doubt the general rankings and magnitudes have changed much. Ultimately Lawrence is less than $2,000 more than five other colleges in the group. Of these six schools, Lawrence doesn’t offer the most institutional grant aid at $25,827; Trinity College is on top with $28,525. Lawrence’s four year graduation rate of 63.5% beats two of the schools but is lower than Trinity College’s 81.2% and Skidmore’s 77.9%.

You would think that the low faculty-student ratio and low teaching course requirements for the faculty would show up monetarily somewhere. However, it ranks only fourth in “Instructional Expenditure per FTE,” seventh in “Student Related Expenditure” and “Educational and General Expenditures.” I say “only” because Ms. Lawrence emphasizes the personal contact for the students is exceptional compared to other schools. Maybe they do it through a lot of adjunct faculty since only 40.2% of its faculty is full-time?

According to College Navigator, the average net price for full-time beginning undergraduate students isn’t noticeably lower than those of other schools with a 9-1 student/faculty ratio.

Sarah Lawrence Trinity College Skidmore Grinnell
2008-2009 $30,963 $16,061 $23,116 $22,083
2007-2008 $24,776 $17,656 $20,570 $24,177
2006-2007 $26,143 $16,473 $22,304 $22,180

Nor can Sarah Lawrence claim it’s educating a higher proportion of needy students compared to similar schools. Given the role of tuition discounting, I guess Lawrence needs to raise tuition so that the discounted rate appears acceptable.

Of course, part of Sarah Lawrence’s problems can be attributed to its weak endowment which is significantly less than the other schools. But maybe if Lawrence graduated more students it would have more alumni contributing. Or maybe the alumni aren’t as appreciative of the transformation as they should be.

The point of all this isn’t to dispute that there are intangibles of a college education that can’t be measured. I’m sure Sarah Lawrence is an amazing experience for the vast majority of its students. But as annual private tuition exceeds annual median household income, the system is obviously unsustainable. Maybe some of Sarah Lawrence’s graduates should work on transforming their own college so that a Liberal Arts education doesn’t become something that is only attainable by the wealthy.

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