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This year, it costs about $60,000 in tuition, fees and room and board to attend one of the nation’s most selective liberal arts colleges.
With financial aid, the average student pays about half of that.
One example: Williams College, in western Massachusetts.
The cost there is 10 times higher than it was 40 years ago, even though the consumer price index during that period rose only fourfold.
What's So Expensive?
As Williams President Adam Falk sees it, the No. 1 reason for the cost of college is the people.
"We spend about two-thirds of the college’s budget on compensation and benefits for our faculty and staff," Falk said.
Especially costly: the faculty.
Two years ago, the average salary for a full professor at Williams was $137,000 a year, which puts it among the best-paying 3 percent of all colleges. And it's a 47 percent increase over 12 years.
At Williams, salary is only two-thirds of the compensation. There are health insurance and child care, and all Williams employees with children in college are entitled to $24,000 a year toward each child's education.
To appreciate labor costs, Falk compares the faculty to another group of highly trained workers: a string quartet. He says you could make it more productive by removing one of the instruments.
"I mean, after all, there are two violins, and really, do you need two violins?" Falk asked. "Couldn’t you play it with one violin? You could reduce the cost by 25 percent."
“Asking [professors] to do it faster or asking them do it to three times as many students at a time are things we can ask them to do, but they will directly degrade the quality of what we want to deliver.”Adam Falk, Williams president
In the 1960s, economists William Baumol and William Bowen pointed out that it takes the same number of musicians to play a string quartet today as it did in Beethoven's day. So the productivity has not increased in 200 years. That explains why the cost of going to a live classical musical performance has gone up more than the cost of a drinking glass. You can manufacture the drinking glass more productively now than you could 200 years ago.
Falk says the faculty is like a string quartet.
"And asking them to do it faster or asking them do it to three times as many students at a time are things we can ask them to do, but they will directly degrade the quality of what we want to deliver," he said. "And so the entire framework of productivity when it is applied to higher education is one that has to be thought of very carefully and can't be thought of in the same way that we apply the notion of productivity to the manufacturing sector."
What Williams wants to deliver is tenure-track professors teaching small classes.
Williams hires no adjunct faculty, and like other top liberal arts colleges, it has a low student-faculty ratio. Amherst College has eight students per professor, Wellesley seven. Williams has one faculty member for every seven students.
Falk says it's what allows faculty to develop what the college most wants students to get from their education: the ability to write, to express themselves orally, to work with others, to think critically and to construct and to criticize an argument.
Ask The Students
Those principles were at work in Professor Charles Dew's class on slavery in the United States when I dropped in last spring. Freshman Lucas Zelnick was trying to explain why Antebellum Southern industry had not kept up with innovations in the North.
Zelnick values the small class size.
"Especially in this class, I feel like my contribution to this class is not going to go unnoticed when I make it, and I think that’s something that incentivizes me to work harder and, as a result, learn harder," Zelnick said.
Dew, himself a Williams graduate, says he couldn't do what he does if he had the numbers of students he taught at state universities. He realized his first semester teaching at Williams it was the first time he'd ever known the names of all of his students.
"And you don’t get that if you’re lecturing to a hall of 500 students or teaching, as I did at one place, on closed-circuit television to a couple thousand people I never saw," he said.
The small class size and the quality of the faculty are the main reasons junior Vincent Molinari believes families pay to send their children to Williams.
But Molinari questions whether the value of Williams is in the education or in the degree. He says one of his economics professors asked students if they would rather go to Williams for four years and never get a degree or never show up but get the degree.
"And I think an overwhelming majority of people said, 'Honestly, I think I would rather just have the degree,'" Molinari said.
But are the best-paid professors necessarily the best teachers?
Nathan Leach, a sophomore from Boston, doesn't think so. He also questions the value of small class sizes. One of his favorite classes last year was "Introduction to the Novel," a class with no discussion because 100 students take it. Leach says class size matters less than the accessibility of professors.
"And so the fact that I can meet with my professors several times a week if I want to, and I can go to his office talk about these ideas, I think is really worthwhile," Leach said.
Leach questions whether what Williams values is what its students value. To him, so much of what he thinks he's getting out of Williams are intangibles that have nothing to do with the professors or the classes or the degree. He says that much of what he's getting out of Williams is meeting new people and being in a place where he's forging his own identity, figuring out what matters to him and learning how to use his time.
"When most of what I’m learning is really about how to live and how to be myself, is it really worth all that money?" Leach asked.
Leach wonders whether he could be learning the same lessons striking out anywhere away from home.
This story aired on January 12, 2015.
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