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Originally published Thursday, May 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

The value of higher education

Higher education is worth every penny of its price, even at the most expensive and elite institutions in our country. Its value cannot be summarized on a spreadsheet or in the tables and charts of an annual report.

Special to The Times

Higher education is worth every penny of its price, even at the most expensive and elite institutions in our country. Its value cannot be summarized on a spreadsheet or in the tables and charts of an annual report. Colleges have changed dramatically over the past few decades, and those who question college costs fail to notice or understand the transformation.

The changes are as profound as those we have witnessed in modern medicine. My father was a skilled cardiologist, but 40 years ago his options in treating patients were very limited. High blood pressure wasn't an easy fix. Open-heart surgeries were rare and high-risk. There were no bypasses, angioplasties, stents or even portable defibrillators.

Higher education has undergone a similar transformation. At Whitman College, where I am president, students now learn in research collaborations with faculty that were inconceivable in the 1950s and 1960s. These opportunities take our scholars to ancient, open-air desert sanctuaries in Wadi Rum, Jordan; to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh; to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to study ecosystems of the deep.

As learning opportunities like these expand, the price of education increases. Rising tuition and related costs are the result of an academic compact that colleges and universities have with their students: the promise of exceptional learning opportunities. Tuition continues to increase because the bar of excellence and competition among colleges continues to rise.

Advances in approaches to learning and increasingly fierce competition in higher education for talented faculty and students do not produce reduced prices, as they often do in the commodity-driven business world. These factors demand improved and expanded academic programs, more faculty and equipment, new and renovated buildings, well-rounded programs in residential life and increased administrative support.

In higher education, the truth is that price often does reflect value. In part, students choose one college over another for the very reasons that influence tuition at these schools: small faculty-student ratios, generous financial aid, superior facilities and comprehensive preparation for successful lives after college. Parents are more than willing to pay higher prices for quality goods. Through their own college experience or those of others, they know the value of a handcrafted education.

Rising costs, especially at top-tier colleges and universities, are a direct response to rising demands. Are we to shortchange faculty and students who want and expect leading-edge technology and instrumentation in classrooms, working spaces and even residence halls? Are we to deny services to families who seek a college with adequate counseling support for their children? When we know that graduation rates increase in direct proportion to the quality of student services, is it wise — or fair — to look for ways to cut corners?

It is no secret that college tuition in America is outpacing inflation. What remains unknown to many is the fact that the price of tuition at most American colleges and universities does not equate to the actual cost of education for the institution. Full tuition at most colleges and universities covers only a portion of costs. Endowments and gifts make up the difference for private institutions; state subsidies and endowments make up much of the difference for public institutions.

Over the past, decade private colleges have more than doubled institutional aid to their students. At Whitman, 75 percent of students receive scholarship assistance from college resources; last year's total was $17 million, or an average of nearly $12,000 per student for the year.

Colleges must remain committed to the value of the individual learning experience and access to it, regardless of a student's capacity to pay. And each year, schools with the highest tuitions offer millions of dollars in financial aid to their students. Due to that aid, students graduating from these institutions often leave with no more debt than students from graduating public institutions.

Putting a price on education is not easy for any college or university. Ask any administrator faced with decisions on programs, facilities, faculty lines, enrollment caps, technical services and more.

As a society, what price are we to put on experiences that prepare young men and women for their adult lives and for leading our future communities? At a time when many states invest as much if not more in their penal systems than in higher education, calling the costs of college into question seems to miss the essential point. Understanding the learning needs of our current students is essential. Making good on our educational promise — to give each of them a learning experience that has the potential to galvanize their lives and guide their future — must be our public mission.

George S. Bridges is president of Whitman College in Walla Walla.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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