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The Best Liberal Arts Colleges: Analysis of Costs, Admissions and Tuition

This article discusses the best liberal arts colleges and topics like costs, admissions, and other topics like tuition.

The Challenge:
This is seemingly the best of times for the most competitive small liberal arts colleges such as Williams, Middlebury, Bowdoin, and Smith as applications soar and acceptance rates descend to the low double digits. Endowments have also bounced back since the onset of the recession. Presidents and financial officers at these institutions, however, are sounding the alarm on the longer-term repercussions of escalating costs. Tuition at four-year colleges and universities rose 28 percent over the past decade. At Williams, Middlebury, Bowdoin and Smith total costs including tuition, room, board, and student fees are significantly more than $50,000 a year.

Moreover, with high levels of financial aid and per-student spending, the elite colleges face the prospect of dramatically increased costs placing financial strain on even the best managed institutions. For instance, Smith College spent $61,655 per student in 2009, $47,113 of which went to education-related expenses. By comparison, the nearby University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a public research university, spent $31,762 per student in 2009, $18,048 of which went to education-related expenses. As the sticker price of competitive small liberal arts colleges continues to grow, admitted students may increasingly be scared away and qualified students discouraged from even applying. Short of becoming an exclusive preserve of the wealthy at home and abroad, how can America’s elite liberal arts schools address this dilemma? Achieving financial solvency, maintaining diverse student bodies, and not abandoning their mission of a broad interdisciplinary liberal arts education is a tall order.

In the short-term, tuition adjustments are an option at some schools. The president of Middlebury College announced last year that the college would cap tuition increases at 1 percent more than the rate of inflation. The vice-chancellor at the University of the South recently announced that the university would cut tuition by 10 percent and focus on need based aid as opposed to merit aid. In the longer-term new revenue sources must be found, however. In 2010, Middlebury college acquired the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Smith College, according to an internal report, is considering the establishment of a task force to explore post-baccalaureate educational offerings and other programs that enhance the college’s “reputation and revenue structure.” Colleges are expanding partnerships and consortiums with other institutions to expand course offerings to enhance their appeal to prospective students, without a commensurate increase in overall costs. The most wrenching change, however, would be an alteration of the liberal arts curricular model to incorporate more explicitly professional and vocational programs for students focused on the bottom line once they leave school. Non-elite liberal arts colleges have already begun to move in this direction.

America’s most prestigious small liberal arts schools will be with us for the foreseeable future. The manner in which they adjust to an increasingly cost conscious and vocationally oriented public, however, will determine what a liberal arts education will mean for future generations.

David Dickson wrote this article as an admissions counselor and expert for Top Test Prep.

Top Test Prep offers admissions experts and private tutoring programs to help students get into the best private schools, colleges and grad schools. Call 1-800-501-7737 to learn more.

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