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Cost vs. Value - Magazine

In the past six months, Sarah Lawrence has been in the news as the most expensive college in the country, topping the list of 50 institutions charging over $50,000.  As most alumnae/i know, for much of its history SLC has occupied one of the top two places. So when reporters ask me how it feels to be first on that list—as did one from The New York Times last year—how should I respond?

I first point out that comparing SLC’s cost to that of other colleges is misleading, simply because our educational model is singular. Unlike other schools, we start with the principle that students are responsible for their education from the very first day. That responsibility extends well beyond choosing among electives within a major. Each student, guided closely by experienced faculty, is accountable for designing the master plan for a unique curriculum, and then for shaping the specific explorations of each course. Independent research isn’t reserved for the special few, either – each student undertakes independent research in a tutorial that accompanies every seminar.

But inculcating such extraordinary responsibility has weighty financial consequences. Our model demands small classes, so that wide-ranging discussion and exploration can take place, and donning, so a student can achieve full understanding by working one on one with a faculty member. Faculty instruct fewer students but work much more intensively with each one, and they do this while sustaining their own academic and creative explorations and professional development. 

In essence, the Sarah Lawrence process is a customized, “handcrafted” education designed to ensure that each student achieve his or her greatest potential. And like anything handcrafted, it is significantly more cost-intensive, and thus expensive, than what’s produced on an assembly line.

What I also emphasize to reporters is that we do not by any means take expense lightly. In fact, we’re deeply concerned about the escalating costs of higher education and are particularly sensitive to the financial pressures facing families—in no small part because SLC suffers when our cost limits broader interest among prospective students and makes attendance difficult, if not impossible, for some who would otherwise thrive here. Exacerbating that situation is the fact that our endowment is simply too modest to offset gaps between tuition and some families’ ability to pay.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that affordability weighed heavily on two decisions last year-- to increase our tuition at a smaller percentage than we have in over two decades and to increase financial aid to retain and attract talented students. At a tuition-dependent institution like SLC, these measures equate to further constraints on our operating budget, adding to decade-long increased costs in health care, technology infrastructure, energy, and escalating expenses in the NY metropolitan area.

Over the past 18 months, I have sent a series of letters to members of our community outlining the financial situation, and as we prepare our budget projections, I will continue to communicate some inconvenient and difficult truths. Thankfully, faculty and staff are making real sacrifices to help us through the economic downturn while preserving our distinctive education.  And I am confident that when we launch our capital campaign, those who comprehend the power of our educational model and care deeply about its sustainability will translate their commitment into financial support.

Right now, though, the most compelling response to the question of our high cost is to focus instead on the superlative value of a Sarah Lawrence education. The key question is whether we’re providing our students with the adaptive skills that are so important in their lives and careers. Are they getting their money’s worth?

To my mind, the answer is an unequivocal yes, and here’s why:

The linear route to a successful and satisfying life has given way to one in which people must continuously create new paths for themselves, even new destinations. Yet despite trendy rhetoric about interdisciplinary study, self-designed majors, and other trappings of student-directed learning, the prevailing system—even at distinguished liberal arts colleges—is still largely one in which students exercise choices within a pre-set menu of options, delivered through a system designed to lead to mastery of established concepts neatly fitting a particular world view.

 American higher education has been considered the engine of our “knowledge economy” and the envy of the world. But today, college graduates are emerging into a different world where high-level, so-called “knowledge economy” skills are increasingly commoditized and outsourced to India and China or other emerging countries. What’s needed instead is an educational system that gives our young people the integrating vision and generative skills they will need to make themselves more valuable in an economy where intellectual prowess alone will be cheap.

And that, I submit, is Sarah Lawrence. From the beginning, our College was designed to develop students’ creativity and discipline. The model we espouse has been validated by the fact that over the years, many of the best-known and most admired traditional schools have adopted such innovations as student-designed majors and programs for undergraduate research. It’s further validated by the testimony and example of our alumnae/i, who most often describe their Sarah Lawrence education as “transformative.”

Transformative, in fact, aptly describes the contributions of Sarah Lawrence graduates such as Rahm Emanuel, who helped America elect its first African-American president; choreographers like Meredith Monk and Lucinda Childs; JJ Abrams, the creator of Lost, a program that re-energized television drama; W. Ian Lipkin, a physician-scientist widely recognized for advancing pathogen discovery techniques; Catherine Muther, who launched an incubator for women-led start-ups in information technology; and Annie Novak, environmental activist, educator and chef who created a 6,000 square foot organic garden on a rooftop in Brooklyn. 

The point, though, isn’t the renown achieved by many of our alumnae/i. It’s that hundreds, indeed thousands, of Sarah Lawrence grads have transformed themselves, their families, their workplaces, and their communities because of a unique educational experience. And the fact that the model is costly? It means all of us need to find new and creative ways to generate revenue, reduce expenses, and ensure that future generations of deserving and qualified students can benefit from a Sarah Lawrence education.

As we pay serious attention to the issue of cost and affordability for our students and families, the “bottom line” for their educational investment continues to be value. And that’s what I tell reporters: we are giving our students their future’s worth.

Karen Lawrence connects with alumnae/i at the holiday party in NYC