Two presidents challenge college value and costs myths
We’ve excerpted two recent opinion pieces that address two of today’s hot-button topics. Mary Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict, tackles the deeper purpose behind college — beyond simply getting a job — and how the liberal arts are critical. The Council’s president, Paul Cerkvenik, takes on the myths around affordability and debt.
The negative narrative that keeps a college president up all night
by Mary Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict
As a relatively new college president, there are many things that keep me awake at night: supporting the well-being of the 1900-plus students entrusted to me; ensuring we are fulfilling the mission our founding order established 100 years ago; wondering how we will raise the dollars to grow our endowment; and presenting a balanced budget in the face of flat net tuition revenue.
While each of these items is vitally important, the most frequent nightly worries I face involve the overwhelmingly negative narrative about higher education that is currently unfolding. I say this because while many of my worries are local, the public discourse about higher education is global and has potentially devastating consequences for the young people involved. There are two parts to the narrative, both disturbing and worthy of my night terrors.
The first part of the prevailing narrative states that a college education, especially a liberal arts education, is not a worthwhile investment. It posits that, in fact, young people can expect to have healthy, happy and economically rewarding lives without going to college. Health and happiness may not be directly related to college attendance (though some evidence suggests otherwise) but the evidence of the economic value of a college education is irrefutable. So why, then, is it being refuted?
In the midnight hour, one’s thoughts run wild and I often wonder if it’s not an attempt to maintain seemingly entrenched class differences. You see, the messages questioning the value of college, especially liberal arts colleges, are not being sent to the very wealthy. Rather, the suggestion is that those of us who grew up in working class or impoverished families (I count myself among this group) need not worry ourselves about the outcomes of a liberal arts education. We can eke out a perfectly fine existence if we are “job ready.”
The liberal arts educate toward liberation, toward the ability to excel within any context, toward the ability to expand one’s own world and degrees of freedom . . . If anyone merits a liberal arts education, it’s those to whom it has been so systematically denied . . .
Let’s ignore the data that college graduates earn twice their counterparts. Let’s ignore that many skilled labor jobs have been replaced by technology or continue to leave the United States. Instead, we should not seek access beyond our current circumstances. We should cede the liberal arts to those for whom it is intended (the wealthy) and the rest of us should focus on job readiness.
I find this narrative disheartening and incredibly troubling for several reasons. The liberal arts educate toward liberation, toward the ability to excel within any context, toward the ability to expand one’s own world and degrees of freedom. Collectively, these freedoms empower not only self but can also be used to uplift a community. If anyone merits a liberal arts education, it’s those to whom it has been so systematically denied; those who are told they don’t need it and should simply be made job ready. What about life ready? What about leadership ready?
College, and its value, is within the reach of all
by Paul Cerkvenik, president of Minnesota Private College Council
The cost of college and the level of student debt are topics of great concern for most families these days. But much that is found in the media relies on anecdotes and outliers who can present a misleading picture of the economics of higher education.
It is important to realize college remains within reach for families of all income levels.
Start with cost and financial aid. Lots of attention is paid to the published tuition price at colleges. However, the important price is not the published price but the net tuition, the price a student actually pays after taking into account grants and scholarships provided by the institutions and by state and federal programs like the Pell Grant and Minnesota State Grant.
Consider the 17 Minnesota private nonprofit colleges that I work for . . . At our colleges, 94 percent of first-time full-time students receive scholarships and grants they do not have to pay back. Last year, our colleges provided more than $500 million in grant aid to students. These grants and scholarships meet the financial needs of low- and middle-income families and reward students for academic merit while substantially lowering the actual price of going to college. As a result, the average net tuition (excluding room and board) at our private colleges in Minnesota is under $15,000. That’s less than half the average published tuition.
Lots of attention is paid to the published tuition price at colleges. However, the important price is not the published price but the net tuition, the price a student actually pays after taking into account grants and scholarships . . .
How can students and families know the price they will actually pay? They can explore net price calculators (which are on every college’s website), visit college campuses and talk with financial-aid counselors. They will learn that the cost of college can be affordable for families at all income levels. In fact, 25 percent of students at Minnesota’s private colleges come from families with incomes below $40,000; another 25 percent of students’ families earn between $40,000 and $80,000.
Next, consider debt. The media often reports on students with six-figure student loan debt. Are these anecdotes typical? Not at all. About 28 percent of students who graduate from Minnesota’s four-year colleges graduate without any debt at all.