It May Cost You Time and Effort, but Junior's College Degree Doesn't Have to Cost An Arm and a Leg

If there is one thing college teaches us these days it is the value of money. When a single year at the nation’s most costly—Vermont’s Bennington College—runs $17,000, attention as well as tuition must be paid. It is enough to make diploma mills seem like a pretty sound investment. Hang on. Among the 3,300 colleges and universities spread across America, there are many fine temples of learning that will spare you from bankruptcy or hopeless debt. It is possible to acquire a good education without undue economic pain.

With the help of Edward Fiske, education editor of the New York Times and co-author of Selective Guide to Colleges, we offer this modest primer on 10 of our value-packed schools, together with tuition costs for out-of-state students.

University of California at Berkeley: The People’s Park is still there—just around the corner from an expensive boutique, but the focus of Berkeley has changed from people-watching to a more formal, top-quality education. Leftists and rightists and born-again pickets still circle the campus, but the principal activity at Berkeley is what a spokesman calls “careerism.” The 31,463 graduate and undergraduate students press to meet the high standards of the sociology, mathematics, physics, history and English departments. Civil, chemical and electrical engineering are also superb. The library system, which maintains open stacks, is third only to those of the Library of Congress and Harvard University.

The Cooper Union: In 1859 an uneducated entrepreneur named Peter Cooper opened a free college for students of “strong moral character” in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art is still tuition-free, supported by an endowment and by gifts. Its academic climate is intense and Cooper Union is rated as one of the best undergraduate art schools in the country. There are three buildings, one parking lot and no dormitories for the 1,000 students enrolled in what has been called the “Bauhaus in the Bowery.” Most students are forced by high local rents to commute. They are a strange mix—engineering students tend to be conservative, art and architecture students liberal. Because of its urban location, Cooper Union has traditionally provided a forum for controversy. Lincoln delivered an important anti-slavery speech there in 1860; Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan used its Great Hall. The student body has also been distinguished. Thomas Edison and sculptors George Segal and Augustus Saint-Gaudens studied there.

Miami University of Ohio: The confusion with Florida’s university is irksome to the 15,900 enrolled students, but they quickly point out the differences. The administration exercises strict control, and academic life is paramount. The strongest offerings on the campus at Oxford are in business administration, which sets the tone for the campus. One communications major called it “Yuppies in Training.” Other popular disciplines include marketing, art, mass communications and advertising. Since cars are banned from the campus and Cincinnati is nearly an hour away, recreation is centered on student athletics with such outdoorsy pursuits as hiking leading the list.

New College of the University of South Florida at Sarasota: Opened 22 years ago with 101 students on the old estate of circus tycoon Charles Ringling, the New College has quickly established itself as academically superior. The secret seems to be an Oxford University emphasis on independent study and tutorials. The 450 students participate with 48 professors in planning their degrees. There are majors in 22 liberal arts departments, but students are free to create their own. One student is majoring in anthropology/psychology/sociology.

Rice University: Known as the “Harvard of the Southwest,” Rice, located on a 300-acre campus in Houston, offers a wide selection of degrees, ranging from liberal arts to the sciences. A significant number of graduates—80 percent—go on to advanced degrees. The university is noted for enrolling especially bright students and excels in sciences and engineering. There is a good architectural undergraduate program and the space physics department works closely with NASA. Students are encouraged to double up on majors, and many end up with odd combinations of specialties, such as electrical engineering and Spanish. The student body is deliberately kept small—under 4,000—so that student-professor contact can be increased. Class size is often kept between 10 and 25 for the same reason.

St. Olaf College: A small liberal arts school tucked away in the Minnesota farm country, St. Olaf is owned by a secular corporation of the American Lutheran Church. Since it was founded in 1874, the majority of the students have been Lutherans drawn from Midwestern high schools, and with only 4 percent non-whites in today’s student body, homogeneity is still dramatically apparent. Among 50 possible majors, St. Olaf offers highly regarded math and science programs, as well as fine courses in Asian studies. More than 1,000 of the 3,094 students are involved in the music program: five choirs, three bands, two orchestras, dozens of ensembles and small groups. The St. Olaf Choir’s annual Christmas Festival has been broadcast by National Public Radio for the past 25 years and by PBS for three years.

SUNY at Binghamton: Organized in 1946 to educate returning World War II veterans, the campus was the first in the State University of New York’s 64-campus system to offer a liberal arts degree. It is now considered a gem, offering programs ranging from medieval studies to computer science. There are 8,000 undergraduates and 3,700 graduate students enrolled. National publications have compared the campus academically to those of Berkeley and the University of Michigan. Accounting is strong, along with biology, chemistry and psychology. There are interdisciplinary fields in Judaic studies, Afro-American studies and Latin American and Caribbean area studies. Administrators hope to increase the enrollment of out-of-state students from the current level of 4.5 percent. Housing at Binghamton is plentiful, and bus service from surrounding towns to the 600-acre campus is frequent.

University of Tulsa: Petroleum engineering and geoscience are regarded as the strongest programs at Tulsa, since it was oil that put the city on the map. There are also fine law and accounting programs, as well as a renovated liberal arts program for the 5,000 students in the graduate and undergraduate classes. In all, five colleges are attached to the Tulsa campus. The College of Arts and Sciences includes the Biotechnology Institute, which was the National Science Foundation’s national model in 1985. The College of Business Administration has a School of Accounting and International Business Studies Program. The College of Engineering and Applied Sciences is deeply committed to energy research. The College of Law produces an eminent quarterly, The Tulsa Law Journal. The College of Nursing and Applied Health Sciences is expanding into the fields of fitness and sports medicine. Graduate programs are also growing, as is funding for the research programs.

Wake Forest University: Founded in North Carolina in the early 19th century by a member of the Baptist State Convention, Wake Forest has spent the ensuing years moving away from its religious connections and rigid reputation. It was begun as a college which, with manual labor, was to provide an “education in the liberal arts in fields requisite for gentlemen.” The Reynolds tobacco family of Winston-Salem offered both encouragement and money to the thriving male college if and when it moved from the environs of Raleigh to 325 pastoral acres in the heart of Winston-Salem. There, Wake Forest shucked off most of its ties to the Baptist Convention, and became one of the most heavily endowed coed universities in America. The strongest departments are history, English and business, with other courses like economic forecasting, elementary Chinese, Medieval French and Hindu literature.

The College of William and Mary: The redbrick campus, in the heart of colonial Williamsburg, Va., dates from 1693 and boasts such traditions as a 200-year-old honor code, the Yule log and a candlelit graduation procession. The prestigious Institute of Early American History and Culture is considered one of the school’s top departments. Also well-rated are the English, physics, government and chemistry departments. Thomas Jefferson (class of 1762) said of his professor of mathematics at William and Mary: “It was my great good fortune and what probably fixed the destinies of my life….” Students cannot escape the colonial influence. They are constantly reminded that among the alumni of the second oldest college in America (Harvard was established 57 years earlier) are four signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler. The college features a strong drama department, and the undergraduate and graduate law programs are first-rate. The student-faculty ratio is a favorable 15 to 1.

Edward Fiske, 49, is in the process of finding a college for the elder of his two daughters, Julie, 17, a senior at Weston, Conn. high school. In a conversation with correspondent Tim Loughran he discussed the hazards of the search and offered this advice for other parents on the campus trail:

What’s the right frame of mind in which to go shopping for a college?

Relax a little. If you exclude the Ivy League, University of Chicago and Stanford, most colleges in this country are not selective. Very few turn down more students than they accept. Most colleges are glad to get most students.

What criteria should be used to assess education quality?

It’s a combination of things: percentage of doctorates among the faculty, the size of the library; academic seriousness is very important, and by this I mean class size and undergraduate access to senior faculty members. Do students have contact with professors? An easy way to find out is to walk into dining halls and see if any faculty types are eating and talking with students.

Is there any overall rule to keep in mind when comparing one college with another?

Yes, high price does not necessarily equal high quality. A college education is somewhere in between the cost of a car and a house—$70,000 to $80,000. It’s a major investment in a child’s future—it ought to be shopped for like anything else. There are bargains to be had out there.

What course of study do you see as the most valuable for young Americans?

I happen to believe in a liberal arts education; this doesn’t mean you exclude any kind of technical or vocational training. But too many people look at college in terms of their first job. Some colleges sell themselves as making the graduate immediately employable, but what if you learn the skills to do an entry-level job, and then five years later that job gets automated out of existence? If you don’t have the skills to learn a new job, what good did your college education do you in the first place?

Are corporate executives now hiring liberal arts graduates?

When you talk to the chief executive officer of a major corporation, he will give you a far more eloquent defense of the liberal arts than I just did. He is looking at middle managers to do other things. At this level liberal arts graduates have a big advantage over technical graduates. They can run the company in the future.

Also liberal arts colleges are recruiting aggressively, using merit scholarships as inducements. A friend of mine who makes a six-figure income told me recently that his daughter was applying to a small liberal arts college in Ohio, and she was offered a $1,000 discount if she enrolled. Colleges are picking up on the sales techniques so common to the rest of America’s business marketplace. To reduce the debt burden, many colleges are also offering parents the opportunity to pay four years tuition upfront at a guaranteed freshman rate. Colleges have financial aid packages for everyone regardless of income.

How can one get more out of the college experience and make better use of the education dollar?

For one thing you don’t have to go to college right out of high school. Many students have gone into the Army to grow up, find out a little bit more about what they might want from life. One of the best things about the openness of American higher education is that you can do it at your own speed. In Japan, for instance, you can’t: There are no second chances. In the United States there are second, third and fourth chances.

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