WITH COMPREHENSIVE fees for a residential liberal arts education reaching or surpassing $50,000 per year, more and more people are asking the question: Is it really worth that much money to educate anybody, anywhere, at any time? Are the minds of ambitious, intellectually driven young people worth it?
The value of a liberal arts education, like the value of life itself, can't be monetized. Those of us asked to defend the high cost of a liberal arts college setting should ask in return, what is the appropriate level of investment in the creative and intellectual dimension that will guide our future? We know how much it costs to provide the educational experience, but is neither the same as what we expect students to pay, nor the same as its value.
We Americans habitually assign cash indicators to things to determine value. If we put our house up for sale, and the buyer agrees to $239,000, we know the value of the house. If we find out three years later that the house sold again for $279,000, we can say its value went up; if it sells for $200,000, we know the value went down. Name brands, discount stores, sticker prices, bargain basements--all such phenomena testify to our interest, some might say our obsession, with value and valuation, especially with the relation between price paid and value determined.
But that's not possible with a liberal arts education, because its value cannot be exchanged for money. We should not confuse the value of a liberal arts education with the cost of tuition and living expenses, as these are entirely distinct matters. In fact, a liberal arts education itself may be had for free, more or less. Its value, however, is measured not in dollars, but in terms that make us put our wallets back into our purses and pockets. The value of a liberal arts education is more properly measured by the quality of life and mind it instills, by intellectual spirit, and by the sustaining inspiration of thinking intensely and creatively--qualities that inform minds at a young age and unfold over a lifetime, but are impossible to exchange for cash.
An enterprising person could walk into a college bookstore, purchase the books for the class on early American history, read them all, and educate herself for a few hundred dollars. Even cheaper, she could find many of the books in the library for free. That same set of books might be offered in a class taught in a large lecture hall of 300 students, a small seminar of 15, an interactive web portal, or an independent study with a weekly tutorial. In any classroom, there might be chalk and board, DVD projection, a computer display, internet access, or nothing but a round oak table, 10 students, and one of the world's experts on those books under study (maybe the professor wrote one of the texts). Or, the teacher might be a second-year graduate student learning a lot of the material for the first time himself. There might be a learning center on campus with a staff devoted to helping with study skills; in that center might be an expert on learning disabilities. Or there may be no such academic support service. Or it may be too poorly staffed to meet the needs of many students.
All of these things have a value measurable by what they cost, except the effect of those books on the mind of the reader. The computer projection, the oak table, the learning center staff--all of these phenomena may be exchanged for money. But not the learning. In the end, one acquires an education by working for it, not by purchase. A liberal arts education is not the result of a monetary transaction, because the value of that education cannot be monetized. Where the money comes into play is the services surrounding that acquisition.
THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Because a liberal arts education cannot be monetized and exchanged, the question of its dollar value is the wrong question to ask. The appropriate question is, what is the value of the setting in which the liberal arts education is pursued, and are there students and families who find that setting worth the monetary sacrifice? …