Karen’s and my fiftieth class reunion at Albion, a national liberal arts college in Michigan, created warm memories with former classmates. Overhanging the reunion was the stark reality of the competitive struggle liberal arts colleges are undergoing.
My liberal arts experience was good for me because of smaller classes, collegiate swimming and close links with faculty that helped me get into graduate school. A required philosophy course lured into minoring in it and enjoying it all my life, which I probably wouldn’t have done in a larger university. Today, the college offers modern housing, expanded scholastic settings and an impressive sports complex as it competes for students and faculty against other liberal arts colleges and public universities.
Enrollment is two hundred students less than when I attended. Total costs have jumped dramatically. Would I, my family and incoming students continue to pay the premium for the degree and if not, which liberal arts colleges will survive?
My alma mater promotes ‘The Albion Advantage’ that teaches students ‘to think clearly and creatively’ combined with a ‘focus on professional excellence’ that ‘turns your interests into your life’s work.’ It has an impressive list of faculty mentoring, professional programs and internships.
Albion reports graduates are successful. Six months after commencement, 93-94 percent are working in career jobs and internships, continuing in professional programs such as engineering and medicine, or serving in community programs, and only six to seven percent seeking employment.
The 2013 U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges study ranks Albion in the top third of National Liberal Arts Colleges based on 16 criteria such as applicant strength, freshman retention, graduation rates, college faculty and campus quality.
According to classmates and officials, students make final choices based on attractive housing, inspiring athletic facilities, and a commitment to serving wholesome food. Upgrading facilities costs money. Several sources surprised me by saying Albion’s sports facilities needed upgrading to be competitive. The cafeteria in the student union recently received a $3.7 million upgrade that prominently displays locally grown produce and meats prepared in a modern kitchen, but competition should match service quality within18 months.
Upgrades add annual operating costs that are hard to cut so increasing revenue is essential. Attracting more students has been difficult given Michigan’s miserable, but recovering, economy.
Like its competitors Albion has raised tuition and fees to $35,454 plus housing and board for a total of $46,010 per year, also placing Albion in the top third of competitive schools.
Recruiters say, “Nobody pays that total cost,” because last year’s average financial-aid award for first-year students was $26,742.
My response is, “Somebody pays that total cost.” Those somebodies include graduates with student loans, donors to foundations, foundations disbursing income and taxpayers supplying government grants and subsidized loans.
Total costs for liberal art colleges have sky rocketed faster than median household incomes. Albion’s total cost in 1982-84 was 44 percent of the U.S. Census Bureau’s median household income. This year it’s 92 percent of 2012’s median household income.
College prices and student debt growing faster than median income are dangerous. When the price of housing became too high compared to median household income, the housing market collapsed.
A retired consultant to private college foundations who requested anonymity, believes liberal arts colleges are falling into a ‘value trap’ because they believe their increased tuition and fees are a measure of their increased value. He believes continuously raising prices may drive students to lower cost public schools and leave many private liberal arts colleges trapped with empty facilities.
Our Michigan family has three graduates from Albion. We also have a niece who is a widow with two children. She is working and living at home attending a public university half-time because it’s the only way she can afford it. Her parents say she aggressively applies for grants and student aid. Meanwhile her daughter is home-schooled through an online program for her sophomore year and could make the same choice for college.
They would both benefit from a liberal arts college like Albion, but right now the experience does not appear worth the extra cost.
The future of liberal arts colleges depends on whether they can deliver the premium value of a liberal arts education at a reasonable price. My wife and I hope they survive. We loved the experience.