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Cost and Value in Higher Education

by Dr. Robert Pearigen


Dr. Robert Pearigen, President of Millsaps CollegeIn recent weeks, President Obama has weighed in on the important subject of higher education in America. Much of the conversation has focused on the cost of a college education and the very real challenges of student debt looming over more and more young Americans. As this conversation continues, we must also seriously discuss expectations related to student learning and the value of a college education.

While the president's plan includes a new rating system for colleges and universities, which would tie federal funding to their efforts to better manage costs and diversify student enrollment, the plan also calls for greater innovation and competition among institutions of higher learning. The New York Times, in an editorial published on Sunday, August 25, summed it up well, writing that the "basic idea is to give more student aid to colleges that admit more disadvantaged students, that show progress in lowering costs and raising scholarships, and that shepherd students to earn a degree."

Advancing legislation to achieve these goals through Congress may take years, time that current college students and rising high school students simply don't have. At institutions like Millsaps College, we have already been working to implement these objectives with our student scholars and high school students who seek to be part of our community and earn their degree with us.

Earning a college degree can be expensive, but study after study shows that a high quality education is the best investment a family can make. At Millsaps, we help our students to reduce their costs, and we are proud that 96% of our students receive financial assistance through a combination of scholarships based on academic merit, talent in performing or visual arts, and family financial need. And, after graduation from Millsaps, 95% of our alumni are employed or in graduate school within six months. Those results are just one aspect of the educational value we deliver.

Crafting an accurate comparison of cost and financial assistance between smaller, private colleges and larger, public universities is difficult and can provide a misleading picture. Residential liberal arts colleges offer experiences that can't always be found in a larger college atmosphere. Large public universities provide an excellent opportunity for many students, but we offer a different experience for the students who come to our campus.

At Millsaps, there are key expectations and promises that we provide to our students, including substantive daily interaction and close working relationships with faculty (94% of whom hold the highest degrees in their fields). And all of our classes, which average 14 students, feature honors level teaching. Developing skills of critical thinking, problem solving, and written and oral communication are hallmarks of not just some but all of our classes at Millsaps. The Millsaps experience, both in and outside of the classroom, also encourages students to entertain and discuss questions about faith, values, ethics, and purpose - questions that will continue to challenge them throughout their lives and careers.

Like other private colleges, we recognize that we cannot compete with public universities in terms of cost alone. We know, however, that we excel in terms of value - not only because we "shepherd" students to earn their degree in four years or fewer, but because we do it from a perspective that recognizes, respects, and challenges students to learn in a way that fully prepares them for success and leadership after graduation.

American historian Will Durant once wrote, "Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance." For tens of thousands of students in America, this process of discovery is unfortunately becoming more elusive as the cost of higher education continues to rise.

President Obama's focus on education is a welcome reminder to all of us who work to teach, support, and mentor college students. Addressing the issues of his proposals - and more importantly, working to resolve those issues - will help us all to concentrate our complete attention on the exciting journey of learning.


This op-ed by President Pearigen appeared in Jackson's Clarion-Ledger in September 2013.