Wahoowah, But What Is “Value?”

In today’s economic climate, there is growing worry about cost.  This is particularly true in higher education, where we have witnessed cost increases that far exceed the explosions seen in other industries (even healthcare).  We tell every student they need a postsecondary education to succeed in the new world economy, but we usually fail to address the cost issue, figuring new loans will simply take care of the problem.  Students are looking for real value and real savings.

Today, USA Today offers up its Best Value Colleges for 2009 under the headline of “Getting the most bang for your college buck.”  
Eduflack is incredibly proud his alma mater — the University of Virginia — is the top public institution in the nation.  He was surprised, though, to see eduwife’s Stanford University listed in the top 10 for private institutions.
Why?  A Stanford education doesn’t come cheap.  Four years out at the Farm will run you north of $150K or so these days.  Same is true for most of the institutions on the top 10 privates list, universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and CalTech.  Even the top private — Swarthmore College — come with a nearly $49,000 a year price tag (while providing an average grant of $30K).  So how does that make it a “best value,” particularly if you are paying sticker price?
Princeton Review’s Ben Zelevansky defines best value as “a list of schools that provide the best balance of a strong education and a reasonable rate of attendance.  The bottom-line cost for families is our concern here.”
He may be right.  But it is hard to swallow that a “best value” college education is pricier a starter house in many of the communities a graduate may soon enter into.  Even at my proud alma mater, I recognize that U.Va. costs more than your average public university.  Quality costs.  Virginia has taken major steps to expand its access and its financial aid — including its AccessUVA program — but it is hardly a great find in the bargain bin.
I recognize that “best value” does not mean the lowest cost, nor is it intended to.  The selection criteria include academics, costs, and financial aid.  Perhaps, though, we also need to look at return on investment to determine “best value.”  How many of these students go on to graduate or professional schools?  How many are gainfully employed within three months of graduation?  How many are employed in the field in which they studied?  How many are giving back to their alma mater — financial or otherwise — demonstrating they value the impact their school had on their lives?
Best Value Colleges for 2009 is a great start, but families across the country need to dig deeper into the data and really understand how their postsecondary dollars are being spent and whether they have a chance of receiving the return they are seeking. Value is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.  More data sharpens that eye.  

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