Bennington College in Vermont was for years famous - or infamous - as the most expensive private school in the nation.
"We committed in 1994 to make the cost of a Bennington education 10 percent less than competitive schools in four years," says President Elizabeth Coleman. "And we did."
Tuition and board now amount to about $27,000, $3,000 to $4,000 less than several other top liberal-arts schools.
Cost of a college education is not necessarily equal to quality of that education. But many parents have seen it that way.
"Pricing has always had a marketing element," admits President Coleman. But that kind of thinking, suitable for luxury goods, is diminishing among colleges and universities.
Nonetheless, a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper finds that students who attend colleges with higher average tuition costs or spending per student tend to earn higher incomes later on.
For students of the 1970s, the return on their educational investment in these expensive schools was a startling 16 to 18 percent. But that return may have declined with the sharp rise in college costs since then.
At the same time, the study, by Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and Stacy Berg Dale, a researcher at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York, suggests that being talented enough to get into an elite school is more important than actually attending one. It reinforces the idea that talented students who apply themselves can succeed no matter what school they attend.
Coleman regards cost containment as a moral issue as well as a fiscal issue. "It is a good quest," she says, and not vulgar as some academics tend to think.
At Bennington, a 600-student institution, one key way of reducing costs was the abolition of its academic-department structure. Departments were always fighting for a bigger share of the fiscal pie, she says.
Faculty had mixed feelings about this change, Coleman says. But centralization has brought more flexibility and efficiency.
One reason for rising college costs is the demand of today's students for far fancier athletic and dormitory facilities than their parents had.
"The whole notion of a Spartan life in academia has diminished," says Coleman. And because liberal-arts colleges are extremely competitive in attracting students, each college feels obliged to have quality facilities. "It would be like stepping in front of a train to challenge that notion," says Coleman.
Another aspect of college costs is that many professors prefer research to teaching, and get away with it. Teaching undergraduates in universities is often assigned to poorly paid graduate students. Professors spend much of their time on research or outside businesses rather than the teaching that provides income to the academic institutions.
Coleman says incentives will need to change to alter that pattern. Professors should achieve career advancement for their teaching abilities, rather than for how many academic papers they publish.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society